‘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



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.

Behind the Scenes ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ bounces back with same traditions, some new spins

Choreographer Hofesh Shechter (left) with "Fiddler" cast members at New West 42nd Street Studios. (Lindsay Hoffman/Jeffrey Richards Associates)

Choreographer Hofesh Shechter (left) with “Fiddler” cast members at New West 42nd Street Studios. (Lindsay Hoffman/Jeffrey Richards Associates)

NEW YORK — Ever since Zero Mostel imagined himself as a rich man in the original 1964 Broadway production, “Fiddler on the Roof” has been a cultural landmark on Broadway and in the Jewish sphere.

It’s one of those musicals that always seems to be in rotation. Over the years, many a Tevye — from Mostel to Theodore Bikel to Chaim Topol to  Alfred Molina — has inspired audiences to reflect on their own traditions, both those sustained and those lost.

Now in previews and set to open on Dec. 20, the newest revival and sixth Broadway production of “Fiddler” features a cast of Broadway veterans such as Danny Burstein (“Cabaret,” “South Pacific”) as Tevye and Jessica Hecht (“A View from the Bridge,” TV’s “Breaking Bad”) as Golde as well as “So You Think You Can Dance”  winner Melanie Moore as Chava.

After thousands of stage productions and an indelible movie adaptation, early ticket sales suggest that the  public’s interest in the musical have hardly waned.

What makes this revival of “Fiddler” worth seeing? There’s a talented cast, for starters, as well as some new spins on the old tale. Here is a behind-the-scenes look at some surprising facts about the current production of  “Fiddler on the Roof.”

> At 91, lyricist Sheldon Harnick still attends rehearsals.

More than 50 years after he wrote such poignant lyrics as “playing with matches, a girl can get burned,” lyricist Sheldon Harnick is still a presence in the rehearsal room, offering the cast feedback and guidance.

At 91, he’s the only remaining member of the original creative team, which included composer Jerry Bock, book writer Joseph Stein and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins. But Harnick’s still a force: In a video of the sitzprobe — the first rehearsal featuring the cast and full orchestra together — Harnick astounded Burstein by saying this orchestra sounded better than he ever remembered.

Harnick’s remarkably agile too. When posing for a cast photo at the show’s media event, he instinctively kneeled on the floor next to 20-something cast members. Naturally they insisted he stand, front and center.

> They celebrate Shabbat together.

Early in the rehearsal process, on Oct. 23, the cast and creative team of  “Fiddler” had a Shabbat dinner at Mendy’s Restaurant, the classic delicatessen in Midtown Manhattan. It may have been the first Shabbat dinner experience for several of them, but after a few “l’chaims” — and conversations that ranged from personal histories to religion, according to  a media representative — they were extended family.

> Current events inform the  production.

At early rehearsals with the cast,  director Bartlett Sher spoke of Syrian refugees and how they serve as an  essential access point for both the  actors and the audience. The significance of “Fiddler” today, he said, is in relating to people who leave their homes searching for security.

“Currently in Europe, we’re seeing the largest refugee crisis since World War II,” he said at a media event. “Tevye allows us to be in that situation as he figures out how to cope.”

> “Fiddler” runs in the family.

Michael Bernardi — who plays Mordcha, the innkeeper, and is also the  understudy for Tevye — makes his Broadway debut in this production. He’s the son of Herschel Bernardi, who replaced Mostel as Tevye in the original Broadway production and later reprised the role in 1981.

But the family connection extends another generation: Bernardi’s grandfather performed the stories of Sholem Aleichem in the Yiddish theater. (“Fiddler” is a compilation of several of the writer’s stories, though it takes some liberties with them.)

> Look out for some new  choreography.

Most “Fiddler” revivals hew closely to the original choreography — but for this production, the Robbins  estate permitted more freedom. This has enabled Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter — his England-based troupe, Hofesh Shechter Company, is known for modernist, gritty movement set to percussive electronic music — to weave in some contemporary movement. Trained in traditional Israeli and Russian folk dance, Shechter aimed not to redo but to expand Robbins’ iconic dances. The result is a balance of  tradition and progress that connects to the musical’s central idea.

> There’s some new music too.

Sher has become a coveted director for reviving classics. He’s breathed new life into the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein (“The King and I”) and Clifford Odets (“Awake and Sing!”). In each of these productions, Sher researches like a professor: He begins by studying early versions of the script — including songs that were cut and dialogue that was rewritten — in order to build a  musical from the ground up.

The result is a production that looks and sounds like the original — yet also feels vital and relevant for  a contemporary audience, with some surprises too. Look out for new music featured in some of “Fiddler’s” dance scenes.

Meet the Maccabeats! ‘Regular Jewish guys having fun’ in an a cappella kind of way

The Maccabeats will perform at the Peggy and Yale Gordon Center for Performing Arts on Dec. 13. Ari Lewis is third from the left; Michael Greenberg is third from right; and Yonatan Shefa is fourth from right. (Abbie Sophia Photograqphy)

The Maccabeats will perform at the Peggy and Yale Gordon Center for Performing Arts on Dec. 13. Ari Lewis is third from the left; Michael Greenberg is third from right; and Yonatan Shefa is fourth from right. (Abbie Sophia Photograqphy)

From performing for free at school events to singing at the White House, the Maccabeats have brought the sounds of Judaism into mainstream music, and they’ll bring those same sounds to a sold-out audience at the Peggy and Yale Gordon Center for Performing Arts on Dec. 13 for a Chanukah Concert.

The 13-member Jewish a cappella group, which was formed at Yeshiva University in 2007, released its latest song, “Latke Recipe,” a parody of Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance,” last month ahead of the upcoming holiday. But what may surprise some fans is why the Maccabeats’ founding member, Michael Greenberg, formed the group.

“When I got to YU, there was no a cappella group, so I started the Maccabeats,” said Greenberg, 27, who studied psychology with a minor in French. “It was largely an attempt to make myself as happy as possible in New York because I was upset about being unable to move to Israel at that point.”

Yonatan Shefa and Ari Lewis, who will perform in Baltimore with Greenberg, joined the group after a mass email was sent out to Yeshiva students announcing auditions.

Shefa, 29, who majored in psychology, said choosing to attend YU was a simple decision since he knew he wanted to pursue Jewish studies. Like Greenberg and Lewis, he became interested in singing at a young age.

“The year before I auditioned they weren’t the ‘Maccabeats,’” said Shefa, adding that the a cappella group existed at YU before it took up its well-known name. “I happened to see them [perform] in a ceremony… I was moved and impressed. The following year they sent out an email blast saying they were holding auditions so I decided I’d give it a shot.”

Lewis, 28, was in Israel when he made the decision to study business management and marketing at YU.

“My roommate in Israel [who is also a Maccabeat] and I knew we wanted to continue singing [while at] college,” said Lewis. “We were excited for the opportunity, which pretty much fell into our laps.”

Lewis explained the climb in popularity started off slowly, first by performing at YU events,  followed by putting on their own shows and then paid performances. Those performances would let them release their first CD. But Lewis said the  release of their “Candlelight” video, a parody of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” which has more than 10 million views on YouTube, made them go viral.

“The question is, what makes any video go viral? To some degree, people are still trying to crack that code,” said Lewis. “On top of the fun and colorful content of ‘Candlelight,’ we filled a niche in the market that until then had been empty. We gave Jews all over a holiday anthem in a world populated with Christmas songs.”

Parodies and rewrites have been a large portion of the Maccabeats’ repertoire. Among other songs, they have also made videos of “D’ror Yikra” to the tune of the song “Cups” from the movie “Pitch Perfect” and a parody of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” called “All About That Neis.”

Aside from experiences such as meeting President Barack Obama, which Greenberg and Shefa singled out as a high point of being a Maccabeat, Lewis  emphasized the opportunity to travel.

“The places I really look forward to [visiting happen during] Shabbat weekends when we bring along our families,” said Lewis. “It feels less like a job and more like an experience.

“The group and our families establish close relationships with the baalei simcha [the people who host them] that lasts for years,” Lewis added. “It’s always a good time when we get  together as a group, but when we bring our families along it makes the experience that much sweeter.”

When asked about what brought the Maccabeats to where they are today, Greenberg and Shefa both  described the group’s rise to popularity as a “perfect storm.”

“I would say it’s half luck. We found a great song that was infectious, and no one else really put out content like that,” said Shefa. “I think we have personality that people connect to. We give off a very real impression that people relate to: regular good Jewish guys having fun.”

Greenberg has enjoyed the journey and opportunities the Maccabeats have created for him, but he recognizes much of the success and popularity was beyond their control.

“I think there have been a number of factors — some identifiable and others not that have contributed to the group’s popularity,” said Greenberg. “I don’t think we could replicate the perfect storm that has brought us to this point.”


Kosher Kush One woman hopes to produce, sell kosher marijuana under Maryland’s medical cannabis program

Pikesville resident Jessica White has applied for processing and dispensary licenses to produce kosher medical cannabis. The state cannabis commission has received almost 900 applications.

Pikesville resident Jessica White has applied for processing and dispensary licenses to produce kosher medical cannabis. The state cannabis commission has received almost 900 applications. (Photo by Daniel Schere)

Maryland is in the midst of issuing a select number of licenses for growing, processing and selling medical cannabis, and at least one applicant hopes to tailor her product to the Jewish community by making it kosher.

The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission reported on Nov. 12 that it had received 882 applications, 705 of which were for dispensary licenses. State law allows about 100 dispensary licenses to be awarded.

Among those mounds of paperwork are applications from Pikesville resident Jessica White, who got interested in medical cannabis through clientele she works with at the holistic health practice she and her husband have owned for seven-and-a-half years.

“I was just looking for something else to do in medicine, and we have a bunch of patients who are great candidates, and we can’t offer it at our current clinic,” she said.

Her patients, many of whom are seniors, suffer from diseases such as diabetes, neuropathy and stenosis. She is concerned that without cannabis available to them, they will be forced to use less desirable drugs.

“They’re not good candidates for surgery, and they’re in tremendous pain,” she said. “And the worst is when they just vanish from us because they can’t even make it to our office. And sometimes they just stop functioning entirely.”

White is applying for a processing license near Westminster and dispensary licenses in locations that include Carroll County, Dundalk, Middle River and Pikesville. She should find out which, if any, licenses she will be awarded between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15, although that is likely to be delayed due to the high volume of applications.

An applicant may only choose one senatorial district in which to set up a dispensary, and each of the 47 districts may only accommodate two. Despite the heavy competition, White said she is optimistic.

We strongly believe that everyone should do what they are qualified to do. We don’t claim to be doctors. We don’t claim to be people who know what the right thing or the wrong thing is.

“It doesn’t matter how many there are; it matters how many there are in the areas that I applied,” she explained. “So how many people applied in Pikesville? That’s my competition.”

White selected the Westminster site for growing due to its proximity to several sites where grower applicants have chosen to set up their operations, which she feels would streamline the production process.

“If you’re just moving it across the street, that’s a lot easier than shipping it from Eastern Shore,” she said. “There wouldn’t be a transportation cost if we all get it. Who knows in the end? It’s a really backwards process because you’re applying without knowing where everybody else is.”

Delegate Dan Morhaim (D-District 11), a physician and longtime supporter of medical cannabis who sponsored the bill that originally set up the commission, said he was a little surprised by the flood of applicants.

“But I think it’s a good thing, because it gives the commission a lot of excellent people to choose from,” he said. “There are a lot of — from what I can gather — experienced, qualified, responsible people — and organizations — who have applied.”

State Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-District 11) said he is not surprised by the large amount of interest in the program and that he is pleased residents across the state will soon have access to the drug.

“This is about medication for patients,” he said. “Cannabis has shown itself in a number of ways to be an effective treatment and in many ways less severe in terms of the side effects than OxyContin.”

Zirkin, a longtime proponent of medical cannabis, said it is important to remove the stigma the drug often carries with it.

“What is clear is that we need to treat all Marylanders the same if they have a disease,” he said. “This should be treated like any other medication just as long as local jurisdictions give patients the ability to get it.”

Zirkin has criticized Anne Arundel County Commissioner Steve Schuh for his proposal to institute an outright ban on cannabis in the county, which did not receive enough votes to pass.

“Local governments should not be in the business of violating state law,” he said. “If a medical doctor believes this is an appropriate medication, politics should not stand in the way.”

If White is awarded a dispensary license in District 11, she faces the challenge of navigating a series of regulations Baltimore County has implemented. Growing and processing sites must be located in industrial zones and dispensaries in business districts no less than 500 feet from a school and 2,500 feet from each other. A key target for White is the Reisterstown Road corridor in Pikesville, much of which is zoned as a commercial revitalization district and only permits dispensary locations by special exception. Councilwoman Vicki Almond said county officials had heard horror stories about regulating cannabis in Colorado and did not want the county’s main roads to be inundated with dispensaries.

“By passing the law, we’re able to say clearly, here’s where you can go,” she said. “You can only have two per legislative district. You’re not going to have 25 in any certain legislative district.”

In order to become certified kosher, White must send in an application to the Orthodox Union after the state grants her a license. Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO of the OU’s Kasruth Department, said it has not yet began to certify medical cannabis, but he has spoken with a number of companies that are interested.

“We would have to visit the facility or facilities where the product is produced, make sure the products are kosher, and equipment is only used for kosher purposes,” he said.

Elefant said the cannabis plant itself is kosher, but all of the ingredients used to make medicinal products must pass the test. He anticipates the process taking between four and six weeks.

Elefant said the OU is not involved in determining the moral status of the drug, but it does not object to patients using it who receive a prescription from their doctor.

“We strongly believe that everyone should do what they are qualified to do,” he said, adding that the OU does not plan to approve recreational use of the drug. “We don’t claim to be doctors. We don’t claim to be people who know what the right thing or the wrong thing is.

“There are unfortunately individuals who are in pain, and actually medical marijuana is very helpful to them,” he continued. “And we feel that it’s only right that we make that product available to the individuals who want it.”

The OU’s Debbie Kaufman, who has been in contact with White, said the organization has also received medical cannabis applications from producers in New York, Oregon and Florida.

White has selected sites for dispensaries in all districts except Pikesville, where she said the two property owners she has spoken with so far do not want to deal with the drug.

“We’d have to find an individual who owns a building and would lease it to us or sell it to us,” said White. “The corporate owners don’t want this use. So if we get a license, we’ll buy a building.”

White’s business, if approved, would sell topical ointments and flowers, but the flower would only be used in vaporizers, not joints.

“It will look like a high-end jewelry store, where you lock up the valuables in a safe,” she said. “There’s going to be such restricted access, and when you come into the dispensary it’s not going to be a head shop.”

Depending on what type of license she wins, White said she may still produce cannabis and market it to the Jewish community.

“It’s more difficult,” she said. “I don’t think it will be when we get a license. Even if we don’t get dispensing here, if we get processing here, we’ll process kosher cannabis to whoever is in Pikesville, to whoever wins.”

Marc Shapiro contributed to this report.


The Threshold Between Seasons: ‘Where Things Begin to Happen’

Leaves of gold, crimson and orange are in the midst of  their yearly cascade, dancing and slowly spinning in descent before gravity has its way. We watch, enthralled by their ability to ride the wind for so long. Children gather these leaves, their colorful bounty, and joyfully run, and then jump, into this gift from the trees.

For those of us who have crossed the threshold from many summers into many autumns, the brilliant falling leaves reflect the changes in ourselves. We recognize that our unique colors always lived inside of us but that we needed to pass through spring and summer before their vibrant revelation.

Poet Linda Nieman, who describes the fall landscape as “liquid gold with a hood of cobalt blue,” views autumn as a time and a place in a person’s life.  She sees her own aging reflected in the passing of the seasons.

“The earth ages, the seasons age, and we age,” Nieman says. She describes her autumn years as a time of giving from her own harvest and a time of remembering her childhood.

“The child remains in you. You can look at the sun-filled sky,” Nieman says, referring to a line in her poem. “But down here, you’re still aging.”

She says that during our autumn years, our wheat is separated from our chaff. The wheat is “the part of us that goes beyond the harvest time.” For Nieman, a priority in this part of her life is giving tzedakah, which she describes in the following poem as offering “the fruit at the edge of my fields”.

“What is the tzedakah I want to give, and to whom, and to what?” Nieman asks herself.  ”What is meaningful to give?”

Nieman, who holds a Ph.D. in education, is particularly drawn to the thresholds of the seasons and the thresholds within our own lives. She believes that during these times between the light and the darkness, as summer becomes fall, and fall becomes winter, we can connect to our ancestors.

Nieman feels a connection to the matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachael and Leah. She says that she feels their presence most deeply as one season ends and another begins.

The threshold between seasons “is a place where you can meet people from different generations,” Nieman says. “It’s a place where you can understand people. The threshold is a place where things begin to happen.”

In Nieman’s poem, she calls the matriarchs back to the doorway, “where things begin to happen and where the generations meet, where we can intertwine and converse with each other.”  She envisions joining with the matriarchs to bake bread for “all generations to eat.”

Nieman imagines threshing wheat and baking bread as a form of creating poetry.

When she senses the presence of her ancestors, Nieman feels a poem forming inside of her, and she brings it to life through her thoughts and her listening, her writing and her music. Nieman sees writing poetry as a means of bringing sustenance to poets and their readers,  just as women bring sustenance to themselves and their families through the threshing of wheat, and transforming flour into dough, and braiding dough into bread.

When asked how she hopes others will perceive her poetry, Nieman says she wants her readers “to connect with the music that is in the poetry.”

“Music is a quieting force, and it’s something we have inside of us. It’s something that connects us to Hashem,” says Nieman, who plays the oboe and who hears music in poetry and poetry in music.

She explains that oboists must reach to play the high notes. She refers to this in her poem, viewing the high notes as a metaphor for stretching oneself to bring the quiet music from inside ourselves to a place where others can hear.

Nieman encourages others to release the poems and music that grow inside of them. “We hold things in ourselves, and yet they belong out there.”


Autumn Harvest Song

By Linda Nieman

The interiority of myself is quiet now.

Gone, the wild animals inhabiting my solar system.

Harmony now reigns

Singing soft melodies

In tune with a muted autumn wind.

As the autumn air sings

Harvesters separate my wheat

From unwanted chaff that now lies on the threshold floor

Like a woman scorned for her lined face.

Do they know I still smile when new lines are formed?

I am pleased that I give to the poor

Fruits at the edges of my fields

Where as a child I lay quietly in summer

And watched the sun-filled sky.

I have sung so long to myself

Imbibing the quiet music that plays in me

Reaching alone for high notes that proclaim victory

Chimes of the universe play inside without quick judgment.

My songs belong to history.

They were sung by Sara, Leah, Rachael, and Rebecca.

My prayers dance to Miriam’s timbrels in the wind

That can sing without me

A melody born in the heavens

Answered by many voices

Who search with me for Hashem

Waiting for our clouded eyes to clear.

“Come back to the threshold,” I call to our mothers

Where you will cross from darkness to light

Together we will thresh the wheat

And bake the bread for all generations to eat.

Classical Meets Rock in New BSO Series BSOPulse puts top indie bands in Meyerhoff with orchestral accompaniment

From left: Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, BSO assistant conductor Nick Hersh and WTMD morning host Alex Cortright discuss the BSOPulse series prior to Dawes' set in September. (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

From left: Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, BSO assistant conductor Nick Hersh and WTMD morning host Alex Cortright discuss the BSOPulse series prior to Dawes’ set in September. (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

Baltimore is home to a world-class symphony, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, that plays hundreds of classical concerts each year at its premiere, 2,443-seat home, the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

While younger audience members tend be a smaller percentage a–t the classical concerts, a new series aims to bring the next generation to the Meyerhoff by exposing them to classical music in a format they’re more familiar with: a rock concert.

BSOPulse, in its inaugural season, pairs the BSO with renowned indie rock bands and transforms the Meyerhoff into a classical-meets-rock concert experience, from the lobby to the concert hall.

“We wanted this to feel different than a night in which [people would] typically walk into the Meyerhoff,” said Toby Blumenthal, executive producer of the series. A major part of that experience includes opening the lobby early for happy hour, which includes a whiskey lounge, food from local restaurants and pre-show entertainment.

While Blumenthal had dreamed up the series years ago, a grant to the BSO from the Wallace Foundation to fund a project to attract younger audience members helped turn the idea into reality. The symphony, for which Blumenthal worked at the time of the series’ inception, partnered with WTMD and tapped assistant conductor Nick Hersh to work on the music.

BSOPulse kicked off on Sept. 24 with alt-country indie rock band Dawes, and continues Thursday, Nov. 12, with Baltimore’s own indie rock duo Wye Oak.

While Blumenthal brought a variety of eclectic acts to play with the BSO in his time as director of rentals and presentations at the Meyerhoff (he is now vice president of programming and chief innovation officer at the Mann Center in Philadelphia) such as Phish’s Trey Anastasio, Elvis Costello and Ben Folds, he said those one-off events don’t do much to build an audience for the Meyerhoff.

To build a series that would introduce a new crowd to the Meyerhoff — and keep them coming back — Blumenthal looked to indie rock bands.

“I felt that the indie rock audience was probably the most accepting of different forms of music,” he said.

While there are other eclectic genres, Baltimore’s strong indie scene also meant WTMD could pull in its audience by presenting bands that the station has a history with, Blumenthal said. And while Dawes and future performers Wye Oak, Dr. Dog (March 24) and The Lone Bellow (April 28) are all quite different from each other under the indie rock umbrella, WTMD acting general manager and program director Scott Mullins said these artists’ music does have some commonalities.

“I think there’s a sense of adventure in their music, and there’s a sonic quality of their music that just seems to open up the possibilities to collaboration with the BSO,” he said.

At September’s Dawes concert, the success of the series was immediately evident, as the packed house sat in total silence while string players from the BSO played Philip Glass’ “Symphony No. 3” to kick off the evening.

“The reaction from the audience to the piece by Philip Glass, I thought, was extraordinary but extremely telling,” Hersh said. “Seriously one of the best audiences I’ve ever performed for. There was such silence you could hear a pin drop, which means that people were really dialed in to what was going on with music many of them probably never have thought of listening to before.”

Following the Glass piece, Dawes took the stage to play a set and were later joined by the BSO string players. Hersh, who composed the orchestra’s accompaniment for Dawes’ music, said he balanced a number of things in composing for the collaboration. He wanted to make sure the orchestra’s abilities were utilized and showcased so that they were more than just backup musicians to Dawes, but he didn’t want to step on Dawes’ toes, musically speaking. He wanted to make sure it was a true collaboration.

“[I wanted to] delve into the song itself, delve into the lyrics and … compose something new for the orchestra, where we’re interweaving what the band does,” Hersh said.

Mullins said watching the collaboration was “overpowering.”

“I think the addition of the orchestra really adds an emotional element to the music,” he said. “It’s such a dramatic, grand, sweeping element.”

For Dawes singer and guitarist Taylor Goldsmith, it was a dream come true.

“It was a richer sound than any of the songs we ever had before,” he said via email. “A lot of what we do as a rock band changes from night to night according to our moods and levels of inspiration, so to have an orchestra play meticulously and beautifully arranged charts gave the songs a new identity and a new depth.”

As a classical musician in college who dropped out of the program after his teachers told him to drop his songwriting and playing in a rock band, the show was validation for Goldsmith. He said it was the first step in making orchestral music part of the band’s future, and he got Hersh’s contact information after the performance.

“It certainly exceeded our expectations from a performance standpoint as well as just the general vibe and feeling of the space,” Blumenthal said.

As for the series’ mission, Hersh believes it’s working, with just about everyone he bumped into after the Dawes show telling him they would come back for the next one.

“It is sort of a fantasy [of mine] simply to explore how orchestral and classical music can find its place for modern ears, and I think the introduction that we’re giving people to this style of music by way of their favorite bands, per se, that’s a great way of doing it,” he said.



Peace, Love and Jewsic Israeli-American folk band will close out festivities during Baltimore Shabbat Project

Imagine a group of Israeli teenagers sitting around on a farm between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, jamming out to American musicians of the generation before them such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young.

That was exactly where Yehuda Solomon, Duvid Swirsky and the founding members of the Israeli-American folk band Moshav found themselves in 1995.

“My brothers and my friends would just sit around listening to music from the ’60s and ’70s,” Solomon said.

Solomon and his friends grew up on the moshav Mevo Modi’im and learned the fundamentals of songwriting from the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who founded it in 1976. Many Americans making aliyah began to settle there and formed a community of musicians, artists and farmers. Swirsky said the nontraditional living situation provided them with a perfect environment for making music.

“We grew up in a place where there were no TVs, so there were very few distractions,” he said.

My brothers and my friends would just sit around listening to music from the ’60s and ’70s

Moshav began by performing for American and Canadian students who were studying abroad in Israel and loved their folksy style of music. But the band’s popularity began to grow by word of mouth when they started receiving invitations by those same students to perform in the United States. The band eventually moved to Los Angeles in 2000. Solomon said the music of the 1960s and ‘70s provided a framework for their style, which he describes as a “falafel sandwich” of sorts.

“[Songs of the ’60s and ’70s] were definitely some of our influences in creating our own folk-rock in terms of writing,” he said. “Everything that sounds great we kind of blend it together. It’s like folk-rock but with a lot of Middle Eastern influences. We draw from the sources of our Jewish heritage, and then we write our own lyrics.”

Swirsky said Moshav is flexible when it comes to what they play.

“We don’t have a box where we have to play this or we have to play that,” he said.

Moshav has peformed at weddings, camps and universities, and they have even gone on tour with Matisyahu. They have recorded eight albums and performed for 10,000 people two years ago on a soccer field in South Africa.

“I was blown away at how many of them knew our music and came out,” he said.

The performance headlined the International Shabbos Project — an effort started by Rabbi Warren Goldstein to bring Jews together from around the world during one Shabbat out of the year.

This year, the second annual Baltimore Shabbat Project is Oct. 21 and features a magic show at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts and concludes with Moshav’s outdoor performance at the “One People One Heart” concert on the grounds of the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC on Saturday, Oct. 24 at 8 p.m.

Solomon said Baltimore was one of the first cities they signed a contract with, and they are excited to participate in the project.

“I think it’s an amazing thing,” he said. “It’s a great idea uniting Jews from every walk of life to celebrate Shabbat together.”

Moshav will also lead services at Beth Tfiloh Congregation on Oct. 23 and at Ner Tamid on Oct. 24.

Nisa Felps, a project manager for the Baltimore Shabbat Project, said the unity is the goal of the event, and they are hoping for a turnout of 50,000 people during the four days.

“It’s about respecting, honoring and dignifying every single Jew,” she said. “It’s bringing Jews together from all backgrounds to celebrate one Shabbat.”

Felps is excited for Moshav’s concert. “They’re a pretty big band in the Jewish world,” she said. “They’re really cool and talented and span the denominations.”

Swirsky said he thinks the Shabbat Project will create an atmosphere full of enthusiasm, which is the ideal setting for a performance.

“I think any situation that gathers people in a very real way is positive for us as a band,” he said. “And the connection to one’s roots is a very important thing for us, with singing and dancing.”


Appetite for Authenticity Local chefs use competition to fuel farm-to-table movement

Photo by Daniel Schere

Photo by Daniel Schere

More than 480 people packed the roundhouse at the B&O Railroad Museum Monday night for Maryland’s sixth annual Farm to Chef Culinary Competition, an event that featured 30 chefs partnering with local farms to create signature dishes using fresh ingredients.

The event is held each year as a fundraiser for the Days of Taste Program, which educates elementary school children about the importance of fresh food. The first year, only 200 showed up, but that number grew to 400 last year, said co-chair Laura Alima.

“When we started, it was 12 restaurants and 12 farms, and we are now at 30 farms and 30 restaurants,” she said.

Alima has been involved with the event since the beginning and said it was originally associated with The American Institute for Wine & Food, the parent organization of Days of Taste.

“I think there’s a lot of buzz surrounding this event simply because I think there’s a true appreciation of dining locally and utilizing local purveyors and farmers,” she said. “I think that’s important to people these days, and I think the event truly embodies that spirit of staying local.”

Alima and her husband, David, own The Charmery in Hampden and are regular participants in the event. She explained that every chef must produce a dish from a single ingredient. Last year, they were assigned beets, which they used to churn up ice cream and pudding. This year, they partnered with Brad’s Produce in Churchville in concocting a gooey pumpkin butter cake with roasted pumpkin and spiced rum ice cream, paired with a sweet pumpkin seed tahini. The combination earned best sweet dish for the second year in a row.

Chef Beej Flamholz, who runs a personal chef service, got involved in the event four years ago after sitting on the board of the Baltimore chapter of the AIWF.

“They asked me to be a part of it,” he said.

Flamholz partnered with Third Way Farm in Havre de Grace to create an arugula and feta cheese Moroccan platter with a side of kale and carrot slaw. He said there are generally eight to 10 varieties of vegetables he works with in crafting a culinary creation.

“You’re given either a savory or a vegetarian dish to make, and from there you talk to the farm and find out what they have available,” he said.

Flamholz credits his mother with helping expose him to cooking at a young age and said he understands what kind of impact this can have on a person.

“I had always really enjoyed working with food and playing with food and trying new ingredients,” he said. “To get any kid started early exposes them to what potential there is for food and not just fast food.”

Flamholz said programs such as Days of Taste are great ways of giving back to the community in a way that shares his food passion with children.

“It’s really mind blowing when [children] experience a tomato that was picked from the vine yesterday as opposed to one that was picked overseas,” he said, adding that many children don’t have access to fresh produce. “I have two kids myself, and at the end of the day it’s about tasting good.”

Females in the family were also a strong influence for Josh Hershkovitz, the owner of Hersh’s Pizza & Drinks in Federal Hill. Hershkovitz’s mother and grandmother often cooked from scratch while he was growing up, and it eventually rubbed off on him.

“I appreciated that, but I wasn’t super into that until I started working with my hands a lot,” he said.

Hershkovitz paired with Richfield Farm in Manchester this year to create a dish akin to eggplant Parmesan soup, consisting of a slush tomato base with ricotta cheese and crispy eggplant croutons.

“Nobody has tomatoes like their tomatoes,” he said.

Hershkovitz said the farm-to-table movement is essential for countering the infusion of mass-produced processed food many have turned to as a diet.

“I think we’ve gotten so far removed from serving real food in general,” he said. “Everything is so factory made, and looking for the least expensive thing is the worst possible thing for you.”

Punctuating the evening was the People’s Choice Award to the best dish overall as voted by attendees. This year’s winner was Therese Harding from The Classic Catering People with her traditional Southern fried chicken and waffle dish.

“It was quite surprising because we thought for sure someone else had already won,” she said.

Harding said she is impressed with the way the local food movement has grown in the last 15 years.

“We’ve seen it slowly become larger, and people are more aware of the local movement,” she said. “Not only restaurants and farms, but also farmers markets. People are more concerned about where their food is coming from, so I think that’s helped the local movement grow.”




Walking in My Family’s Footsteps Odessa: a city important in Jewish history

Odessa’s Opera House is famous and a much-loved place in the city. (Wikimedia Commons/Alex Levitsky & Dmitry Shamatazhi)

Odessa’s Opera House is famous and a much-loved place in the city. (Wikimedia Commons/Alex Levitsky & Dmitry Shamatazhi)

Since the Ukrainian-Russian crisis broke out last year, I have often thought of Odessa.

You may love it or dislike it, but no other city in Russia resembles Odessa, this cosmopolitan city in the Ukraine that some refer to as “Little Paris.”

It has been in and out of the news due to the conflict over Crimea. There have been deaths, demonstrations and fighting between those supporting Ukraine and those backing Russia and separatists. Yet, the city is, as the Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel put it, “the most charming … of the Russian Empire.”

Babel, a native son, also wrote that the port was a city in which an individual can “live free and easy,” because the Jews make up nearly half the population. In his words, the town was “the star of exile.”

Odessa remains at the heart of Russian culture. One need go no further than Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). “And so I lived a while in Odessa,” wrote Pushkin.

All my life I had an idea that I would be going to Odessa, part of Ukraine since 1954 and formerly part of the former Soviet Union. My family came from this city on the Black Sea, and it certainly is a tourist attraction. When the time came to research the city for my historical novel, “Klara’s Journey,” based on a story of my aunt and her sisters, including my mother, Sonya, who lived on Proharovskaya Street in Odessa and later settled in Pittsburgh, I flew there with great anticipation and excitement.

To feel the charm of Odessa, I walk the city streets and admire the buildings designed in Neoclassic architectural style, including the still-standing, yellow-and-white local mansions, many of which display a Mediterranean theme.

And I note that about a million people, 62 percent Ukrainian and about 30 percent ethnic Russians, occupy this transport hub. I move along Primorsky Boulevard to Nikolaevsky Boulevard to inhale the spicy aroma of the acacias hanging over the city’s busy harbor as well as the famous 240 Odessa Steps, which were reduced to 192.

At the top of the steps stands the statue of the Duc de Richelieu clad in a Roman toga. He is the French Émigré who, 200 years ago, served as governor of Odessa. Now, the stone duke points at all those arriving to his beloved city.

I head along Deribasovskaya Street, through crowded seas of pedestrians. In Catherine Square, the city has erected the towering statue of Catherine the Great, where once stood the Soviet- style monument to the sailors of the Potemkin. The city is home to the renowned Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater and green parks.

Odessa is considered one of the most important cities in recent Jewish history. Some of the greatest Jewish writers and personalities of the 20th century hailed from and/or lived in this port and other towns in the Ukraine.  Among them: Ze’ev Vladimir Jabotinsky, Mendele Mocher Seforim,  Sholem Aleichem, Joseph Trumpeldor, Ahad Ha’am, Leon Pinsker, Menachem Mendel  Ussishkin and Meir Dizengoff.

Odessa also was a city of the enlightenment and one of the largest centers of the Zionist movement, a city from which thousands of Jews, including David Ben-Gurion, began their journey to Israel. The past always haunts the Jewish people: the pogroms, the anti-Semitism that exists in Ukraine, Russia and throughout Europe. Nearly 100,000 Odessa Jews were slaughtered by Germans and Romanians during World War II.

Odessa, which before the fall of communism was home to some 70,000 Jews, now has 30,000 Jews, approximately 3 percent of the overall population.

Some Jews support the Ukrainian government and some back Russia in the current conflict that has been going on for about a year and a half. Recent weeks have seen fresh attempts to resolve the conflict; a weak truce is holding.  But the bulk of the Odessa Jews lie low for now. According to news reports, no one is panicking. Many have decided to stay, though aliyah from all Ukraine amounted to 1,971 individuals in the first quarter of 2015 compared with 625 in the first three months of 2014 — a 215 percent leap.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has aided Odessa’s Jews through its Hesed Center since the early 1990s and is continuing to provide assistance to elderly and homeless.

Odessa boasts an active Jewish community that sponsors a dozen synagogues and prayer houses, a Jewish museum, a number of organizations and the Beit Grand Jewish Community Center, which opened in 2008. The three-story building at 77/79 Nezhinskaya St. was officially dedicated in 2010 by the JDC and the Odessa Jewish community. Housed here are Hesed, a kindergarten and Hillel as well as an extensive library, community gym and a theater hall.

The Migdal JCC, at 46a Malaya Arnautskaya St., operates more than 100 programs in various areas of Jewish life for different ages, including the Mazel Tov Center for Young Families. It is the home of the first Jewish library to open in Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union and boasts a collection of more than 10,000 books. JDC is Migdal’s primary sponsor.

Three religious communities function in Odessa. The Chabad Central Synagogue of Odessa during Soviet times was used as a warehouse by the KGB. Standing tall is the renovated Great Synagogue of Odessa, now called the Main Synagogue of Odessa and located on Yevreyskaya Street (which means “Jewish Street”); during Soviet times, this house of worship was made into a sports facility. Each of these synagogues maintains a religious Jewish school. ORT sponsors a more secular Jewish school.

A Reform movement of Judaism functions in Odessa. The group holds activities and programs, including a Sunday school, at Nina Onilova Street, 16.

Undoubtedly, Odessa will heal its wounds, and more tourists will flock there. Until then, many will remember her as a city of sun, sea and love.

Ben G. Frank is the author of “Klara’s Journey,” “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” and “A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America.”