Beating the ‘Matzah Diet’ Your holiday Haggadah to staying healthy during Passover

Passover is the time of the year when Jews celebrate our freedom from slavery in Egypt. But the endless monotony of eggs, potatoes and matzah for eight days may leave you feeling like a slave to your chametz-free diet.

However, the avoidance of bread and certain grains and legumes doesn’t have to limit the wealth of healthy and nutritious options available to you during this festive time. Consider this your primer to managing the stresses of Passover eating — your Haggadah to staying healthy throughout Passover while still enjoying family, friends and holiday festivities. Who knows? You may even find yourself making an exodus from your current pant size!

Before the Seder
Passover marks the return of springtime, and what better way to welcome back the warm weather than to peruse your local farmer’s market for the bountiful spring offerings such as asparagus, sugar snap peas and artichokes to make the centerpiece of your Seder meal.

If you’re a guest at someone else’s Seder, offer to help out by contributing a healthy dish. Your host will appreciate the gesture and you benefit from knowing there is at least one healthy option at the Seder table.

The Seder itself is a marathon, not a sprint, and like any athlete, you need to prepare beforehand. As it may be a while before you actually sit down to the meal, eating a snack with protein and fiber prior to the meal can stave off your hunger and help you make more nutritious choices at the main event. Some smart snack choices include Greek yogurt with blueberries or raw veggies with a small handful of almonds.

During the Seder
Rather than plain matzah, opt for whole wheat or spelt matzah, which are higher in fiber content. Fiber keeps you more satiated and helps relieve those digestive issues that often plague us during Passover.

When it comes to your meal, avoid black and white thinking; it’s perfectly okay to enjoy some of the foods that you wouldn’t have the opportunity to eat any other time of year. Try to fill your plate up with mostly nutritious options such as veggie-based dishes and lean meat or fish, and pick a few small portions of more indulgent dishes that you love. If you avoid feeling deprived of your favorite foods, you will be much less likely to overeat and feel much more satisfied with your meal overall.

Pace yourself with the vino! Four glasses of wine at the Seder is a lot. Not only does wine impair your judgment toward making healthier choices, it also adds up those liquid calories quickly. Instead, switch to half glasses of wine. Maximize the health benefits by opting for red wine, which contains the antioxidant resveratrol. Studies have demonstrated this antioxidant may promote heart health and decrease stroke risk.

After the Seder and beyond
While tradition may dictate that we recline at our Seder table, there’s nothing wrong with starting your own active family tradition. Try taking a walk after the Seder meal or join your kids in the search for the afikomen.

As for the rest of the holiday, your best bet for sticking to a nutritious diet is experimenting with fresh veggies and fruits as the center of your meal. This will also help you to regulate your digestion, which is a common symptom of the “matzah diet.” Try to avoid those prepackaged special Passover foods and instead, get creative with your meals. Below you will find a few recipes to help get you started.

Beef and quinoa meatballs

Cinnamon-Dusted spaghetti squash kugel with dates, apples and walnuts

Safe at Home

There are a wealth of Passover books catering to younger audiences out this spring, including an inventive sports haggadah and brightly illustrated stories for tots.

032015_haggadahs_baseballJews and baseball go together like matzoh balls and chicken soup. Imagine, then, Rabbi Sharon Forman’s surprise when last Passover, her middle child, Joshua declared that he could not find a baseball-themed haggadah.

To meet the desire of her “baseball-obsessed” Little Leaguers, Forman penned “The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings,” illustrated by Lisa Titelbaum and with a forward by Jon “JD” Daniels, president of baseball operations and general manager of the Texas Rangers, and his brother, rabbinical student Ryan Daniels. The self-published book is selling briskly on Amazon.

Baseball, it seems, is the perfect sports vehicle for relating the Passover story and traditions. As is written in the introduction, “On Passover, we celebrate God’s ‘mighty hand and outstretched arm’ (Deuteronomy 26:8). Baseball also celebrates the ability of a good arm to take a team home.”

Home plate with a bit of imagination becomes a Seder plate, there are blessings for wine, grape juice and for sports drinks and even a baseball version of “Who Knows One?” (One is the World Series, two are the teams of the game, three are the outs of an inning and so on.)

“There really are so many connections [between baseball and Passover]. I don’t think I could have made a hockey haggadah,” said Forman. “There’s something kind of religious about [baseball]. The goal is to go home, which really is the point of the Seder.”

There are two teams — the Israelites, headed by team captain Moses, and the Taskmasters, headed by captain Pharaoh — announcers, batters, an umpire and adult coaches (who handle important tasks like lighting candles).

The text is gender-friendly and provides transliteration of Hebrew for the traditional prayers.

Forman cautions that the haggadah, though retaining all of the traditional requirements — albeit with a baseball twist, is meant to be used as a supplement around the Seder table or as a good resource for a mock Seder.

Forman, who was previously the director of education at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City, said, “I’m somewhat obsessed with Jewish learning in traditional ways and in not so traditional ways. It was important to me not to create a toy for the Seder [but] something that has spiritual and religious values.”

Westchester Reform Temple, where Forman is employed as a part-time rabbi, will host a model Seder for students using “The Baseball Haggadah” later this month.

032015_haggadahs_Another-Sheep“And Then Another Sheep Turned Up,” by Laura Gehl of Silver Spring, Md., and illustrated by Amy Adele, is a charming, colorful book about a family of sheep whose guest list for the Seder keeps growing with each page turn.

“Papa poured more wine for Sol. Everybody took a sip,” begins one of the book’s stanzas. “Mama gave karpas to all. Hannah took a piece to dip. And then another sheep turned up!”

With a chorus of “Mama set another place. Papa found an extra seat. Hannah squeezed to make more space, thrilled to have a guest to greet,” the seats surrounding the Seder table grow in number.

The book is appropriate for toddlers through early elementary school age children.

032015_haggadahs_Engineer-AriFor train obsessed boys and girls, Kar-Ben introduces “Engineer Ari and the Passover Rush” by Deborah Bodin Cohen and illustrated by Shahar Kober.

The story is littered with Hebrew phrases, Passover traditions and feel-good lessons about sharing. Over the course of the short story, Ari, the train engineer, rushes to make one last roundtrip from Jaffa to Jerusalem before Passover begins. Along the way he encounters friends and neighbors who help him check off the list of items he needs for his Seder: roasted egg, charoset, parsley, horseradish, shank bone and matzoh.

A brief history lesson on the first train line that ran between the two cities is included in the back of the book.

A Disappointment NBC Universal’s ‘Dig’ travels far, but not as deep

Jason Isaacs stars as Peter Connelly in USA Network’s “Dig,” which premiered last week.

Jason Isaacs stars as Peter Connelly in USA Network’s “Dig,” which premiered last week.

LOS ANGELES — Last summer, in the midst of the Gaza conflict, the threat of rocket fire forced NBC Universal’s “Dig” to stop production in Jerusalem and move out of the country.

If only the show itself were half that dramatic.

Instead, “Dig,” which premiered last Thursday on the USA Network, is a rather flat amalgam of “Indiana Jones” and “The Da Vinci Code” poured into the mold of a standard television conspiracy-thriller.

The show follows FBI agent Peter Connelly (Jason Isaacs) investigating the murder of an American archaeologist, which leads him to uncover a group of apocalyptic religious
extremists seeking to bring about end times by re-enacting the ceremonies of an ancient biblical cult.

Although the action sprawls across the globe, it is focused primarily on Jerusalem, a piece of territory as charged and dramatically contested as any on earth. Yet in a sign of the show’s weakness, “Dig” feels oddly detached from the actual currents roiling the ancient city.

Making it even more perplexing, “Dig” was co-created by Gideon Raff, the creator of the hit Israeli show “Prisoners of War” and its American spinoff, “Homeland.” If anyone has shown an ability to explore complex characters against the backdrop of the political conflicts of the Middle East, it is Raff.

But despite being partially filmed in Israel, the setting of “Dig” bears only a passing resemblance to the actual country. Not only is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wholly absent (aside from obligatory news clips), but there are no significant Muslim characters. There is one Palestinian character, but he is an apocalyptic Christian and an international art thief — not exactly representative.

Instead, the writers focus on the rites performed in ancient temples and a rather unique coalition of Jewish and Christian fundamentalists intent on re-enacting them. Thus,
we have a group of Orthodox Jews focused on procuring a red heifer, a Christian sect in the New Mexico desert that has been raising a young boy for an as-yet-unspecified role, an international antiquities conspiracy to assemble the breastplate of the high priest, and an archaeological dig underneath the Temple Mount seeking to uncover the original ark of the covenant. There is even an appearance by the Essenes, the ancient religious sect, reborn here as globetrotting, white-clad killer ninjas.

There is also, of course, a conspiracy, and it inevitably goes All the Way to the Top.

Unfortunately, the character development isn’t nearly as carefully worked out as the eschatology. Our hero, the FBI agent Connelly, a tough all-American cop posted to Jerusalem, is sucked into the case after he meets a female archaeology student who happens to look exactly like his dead daughter. They spend the night wandering through Jerusalem, eventually descending into an archaeological tunnel to skinny dip in the mikvah of the ancient temple. The next morning she is found dead.

The Connelly part is thinly written. The extent of his emotional life is both explored and exhausted in periodic calls to his wife to grieve over the loss of their daughter — calls that seem largely designed to reassure the audience that he is still invested in finding the killer of his daughter’s doppelganger. Still, that’s better than his boss (Anne Heche), whose role consists of sleeping with Connelly and repeatedly telling him, unsuccessfully, to back off the case.

By far the most genuine relationship on the show is between a young Chasidic man and the red heifer he is sent to care for and transport to Jerusalem. Here, at least, there is real affection.

Meanwhile, the audience is left with no insight into what motivates any of the religious extremists. Such people do exist, after all, and it isn’t as if religious extremism has ceased to be a relevant topic.

“Dig” could have gone in a different direction by demonstrating a sense of fun; it already teeters at times on the edge of ridiculousness. Connelly can’t seem to turn a Jerusalem corner without running into some sort of religious procession. And the show also demonstrates a level of cooperation among evangelical Christians, Catholics and Orthodox Jews that would seem, apocalypse or no, to deserve some sort of award for interfaith cooperation. Instead, “Dig” insists on taking itself deadly serious.

Ultimately, “Dig” manages to cover some of the richest, most resonant terrain in the world — both physically and thematically — without ever delving beneath the surface. This is a pity given the talent involved.

Raff’s co-creator, Tim Kring, demonstrated in “Heroes” that he could take comic book genre material and still make gripping television. Raff’s sense for the ways that people can be torn apart by larger political and social pressures should resonate beautifully in a country that has often been a magnet for messianic fantasists. And Israel is never less than mesmerizing as a backdrop. (The show also was filmed in part in Canada, New Mexico and Croatia.)

“Dig,” however, seems to approach Jerusalem with all the curiosity of a lazy tourist, making it little more than a venue for some pictures and tired fantasies.

Cavalier Effort Blatt getting a handle on life as NBA coach

Coach David Blatt and star player LeBron James both say that Blatt has made the needed adjustments in his rookie season guiding the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Coach David Blatt and star player LeBron James both say that Blatt has made the needed adjustments in his rookie season guiding the Cleveland Cavaliers.

WASHINGTON — With the clock winding down on a recent game here, Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt was still barking out instructions to his players despite enjoying a late 40-point lead over the Washington Wizards.

Things didn’t come quite as easy early this season for the rookie NBA coach and his team, which had great expectations with the return of four-time MVP LeBron James via free agency from the Miami Heat.

Cleveland stumbled to a 19-20 record, leading some pundits to question Blatt’s qualifications for the world’s premier basketball league and minimizing his success with Maccabi Tel Aviv, as well as Russia’s national team. Some also charged that James, who missed a few weeks with a knee injury, was running the team, anyway.

But 21 wins in the past 25 games have shushed the critics and vaulted the Cavaliers to a 43-26 record as of March 17, and a 2 1/2-game lead over the Chicago Bulls in the Central Division.

All of which leaves Blatt, James and Co. feeling far better about their season.

“I’ve gone through my own learning curve that I’ve obviously worked through,” Blatt, 55, said in an interview. “Two-thirds through the regular season I’ve become a lot more comfortable, and a lot more cognizant of the things that are necessary to make a winning situation on an NBA team.

“We’ve gone through the normal maturation process of a new team,” he added, referring to a roster with just three holdovers from last season.

The club has actually dealt with two makeovers: the off-season changes that landed James, fellow All-Star forward Kevin Love and several accomplished role players joining Kyrie Irving, a star guard; and the trades since January delivering two new starters in center Timofey Mozgov and guard J.R. Smith, along with valuable reserves Iman Shumpert and Kendrick Perkins.

James’ return from injury and the additions of Mozgov, Smith and Shumpert “were the turning points” this season, Blatt said.

Mozgov, in fact, was a familiar face, having played for Blatt on Russia’s national team and winning a bronze medal together at the 2012 Olympics.

The 7-foot-1 center said Blatt has adapted well from European basketball to the NBA.

“The NBA is so different than overseas [basketball], and he’s doing a good job,” Mozgov said. “The coach knows me, he knows how to use players the right way.”

Another Cavalier qualified to compare domestic and overseas hoops is Smith, who played one season in China. The cultural richness experienced by Blatt — the Boston native played professional basketball in Israel and has coached for six countries’ teams, leading Tel Aviv to five national titles and last year’s Euroleague championship — has to be an advantage, Smith said.

“He’s a player’s coach. He’s very into the guys, he cares about his team, he cares about the players off the court just as well as on the court. That’s what you need,” Smith said. “I noticed that right away. My first conversation, he asked how I was doing — not so much as a basketball player but as a person. That’s a great quality.”

James said of his relationship with Blatt, “Every single day it grows. I respect him as a coach, he respects me as a leader of this team and we have some good chemistry right now. We’re going to continue to grow for the betterment of the team.”

The adjustment period Blatt required is understandable, and James said he’s seen steady improvement.

“It’s just like for a rookie NBA player. Guys get better, they know the game, they start to learn it more and more, they know how to approach it every day,” James said. “This is not an easy situation for him. He wasn’t hired with this roster, but I don’t think he’s shied away from it. He knows the game, and I’m happy to have him at the helm.”

Blatt is reveling in the experience. Coaching James is “obviously a great opportunity,” since he’s “a great player and has a fabulously high basketball IQ and a strong, strong desire to win and to help his team,” Blatt said.

“He’s also coming back in a very special kind of situation, coming back home and taking the responsibility of trying to lead a new group to heights that they have not known for quite some time.”

Blatt, who is Jewish, recently went home, too, flying back to Tel Aviv during the All-Star break to see his wife and four children, including twin girls who are college students at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. The family has not yet visited Blatt this season.

“It was great to be back, but it was also great to come back to Cleveland,” he said.

If they maintain their improved play, the Cavaliers are well positioned to challenge for the Eastern Conference’s second seed. Come April, the drama in their opening-round playoff series could be exquisite, with Cleveland possibly facing James’ former Miami squad.

“I think we’ve put ourselves in a good situation for the last part of the season and for the playoffs,” Blatt said. “We’re in pretty good shape.”

‘The Jewish Journey’ PBS documentary traces 350 years of migrations to America

Passengers on board the S.S. Imperator arrive in New York City on June 19, 1913.

Passengers on board the S.S. Imperator arrive in New York City on June 19, 1913.

“You survive, you honor us by living,” said Martin Greenfield, now a New York master tailor, recalling his father’s words after he was liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp.

The quote could easily be taken as the theme of “The Jewish Journey: America,” a PBS documentary tracking the migrations over 350 years of Jews fleeing Latin America, czarist Russia, Nazi Germany and the Muslim world for these shores.

The one-hour program, opening with a majestic rendition of “America the Beautiful,” will air on PBS stations nationwide this month and in April. The show is produced, directed and written by Andrew Goldberg, who has become the semi-official Jewish chronicler for PBS, with such productions as “The Yiddish World Remembered” (2002), “Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century” (2007) and “Jerusalem: Center of the World” (2009).

While many Jews arrived in the United States seeking refuge from persecution, millions more came for economic reasons — to build better lives for themselves and their children in the New World.

The first Jews to arrive in the future United States were 23 Sephardim who fled the Portuguese Inquisition in Brazil in 1654. They settled in New Amsterdam, later known as New York.

They were followed by Jews fleeing failed revolutions in Europe in the 1840s and later by Gold Rush fortune seekers. But by the 1870s, Jews in the United States numbered no more than 200,000.

By 1927, the American Jewish population had skyrocketed to more than 4 million, spurred by the massive influx of 1.5 million Jews from Eastern Europe, predominantly
Russia, between 1880 and 1910. It speaks to the Jewish penchant for founding and then splitting into separate groups that there were some 17,500 Jewish organizations in the United States in 1927.

The mass immigration from the Pale of Settlement gives the film a chance to draw on various archives to illustrate the lives of poor Jews — the wealthy ones mostly stayed put — both in the shtetl and then on New York’s crowded Lower East Side.

Often overlooked in the triumphant rendition of the American Dream is the film’s description of the emotional price paid by emigrants as they separated from families and traditions that had bound them together for generations.

Though the new immigrants endured hard times in their adopted country, they usually wrote glowing letters of their success to the folks back home, which triggered even more immigration.

With the post-World War I recession and fear of the communist revolution in Russia came growing xenophobia, culminating in the 1924 Immigration Act, which narrowed the once wide-open entrance to the United States, especially to applicants from Eastern and Southern Europe.

A small but steady trickle of Jews arrived after World War II from displaced persons camps. More came after establishment of the State of Israel, fleeing hostility to Jews in
Islamic countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Another wave arrived after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, followed by Soviet Jews in the 1990s.

Integration of the new immigrants was rarely easy. In an illuminating interview, New York Rabbi Marc Angel recalls the dual pressure from his grandfather to strive for success in the new country but still retain Jewish traditions.

Yet, Angel concluded, the real miracle was that after so many generations in America, Jews have remained Jews.

Producer-director Goldberg, who founded and heads Two Cats Productions, ascribes much of his interest in Jewish-themed films to his own heritage. But there are other reasons as well.

“For one, PBS likes our work, and also there is a community that is willing to fund such documentaries,” he said.

Only about one-third of Goldberg’s productions are on Jewish themes. Now in the pipeline are a documentary on animal cruelty and another on the interpretation of classical music.

“The Jewish Journey: America” began airing nationwide on March 3.

Schmuck Takes on Klezmer Baltimore band presents classic Jewish music in tongue-in-cheek manner

For Evan Tucker, all signs point to klezmer.

The violinist grew up playing classical music and got into pop music as a teenager, but neither quite felt right to him.

“When you grew up in Pikesville — for me going to Schechter and then Beth Tfiloh — that experience has to be filtered through Jewish music one way or another,” Tucker, 33, said. “My problems in the pop world are my same problems in the classical world: It doesn’t feel like a mother tongue. For some reason, Jewish music does feel like a mother tongue.”


Photo by Marc Shapiro


And so, a few months ago, Tucker assembled a group of Baltimore-area musicians to form a klezmer band flippantly named Schmuck.

While the band plays traditional, classic klezmer songs, the presentation is hardly traditional. On its Facebook page, the band lists its genre as “unkosher klezmer” and interests include bacon, shrimp, cheeseburgers, the media and a variety of other playful pokes at Tucker’s people.

“Over and over people ask, ‘Why did you name the band Schmuck? Won’t you offend some people?’” he told the audience at a recent concert at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore. “Yes, but you’ll never forget the name of this band.”

For Tucker, the band name is a way of asserting the group and giving it an edge.

“I wanted a way of immediately signifying to people that this is not just klezmer as it’s generally practiced,” he said. “Fundamentally, we want to be something that can both appeal to the Park Heights Avenue crowd and the North Avenue crowd,” referring to the Station North Arts and Entertainment District in Baltimore.

At its Creative Alliance show on March 8, part of Charm City Tribe’s Wild Purim Rumpus event, the band was decked out in yarmulkes, although Tucker is the only Jewish member; the Facebook lists members as “Whole Lotta Goyim.”

The six-piece band belted out traditional klezmer songs with their eerie European/Middle Eastern tones as Tucker sang in Yiddish and bounced up and down as the songs sped up.

“The whole point of the Jewish scale, what we call the freygish scale, it’s not quite minor, it’s not quite major, but it sounds minor key-like enough that it sounds sad,” Tucker said.

“But the thing is, it’s usually played so quickly, so it gets that sort of bittersweet feel that you don’t get in too many other cultures.”

Evan Tucker (center) leads “unkosher klezmer” band Schmuck during a recent performance at Charm City Tribe’s Wild Purim Rumpus at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore. Photo by Marc Shapiro

Evan Tucker (center) leads “unkosher klezmer” band Schmuck during a recent performance at Charm City Tribe’s Wild Purim Rumpus at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore. Photo by Marc Shapiro

In addition to his new klezmer effort, Tucker also plays violin in local gypsy/Slavic jazz group Orchester Praževica and directs a cappella choir Kol Rinah, which operates out of Chizuk Amuno Congregation. For him, Jewish music is inescapable, especially the klezmer.

“It’s in the background of every kid who grows up in Pikesville without them even realizing it’s there,” Tucker said.

For his non-Jewish bandmates, playing in Schmuck has been a learning experience.

Brannock Reilly, the band’s soprano saxophone player, said his time in the band has been “baptism by fire” in learning about klezmer.

“I like the melodies, I like the feel of it,” Reilly, who also plays in Orchester Praževica, said. “It’s a lot of fun to play.”

Bassist Zach Serleth, who’s been playing klezmer for a few years, said the genre contrasts well with the music he’s used to playing — bluegrass and old-timey music that’s usually in major keys.

“Those kinds of note choices and darker melodies are really interesting to me in the folk world,” he said. “The music’s a little bit more complex. It’s a little more arranged. It’s got this darkness to it.”

And how did the non-Jewish band members feel about the band name?

“We didn’t do it to offend anyone, but it makes people talk about it. We’re not trying to be malicious,” Serleth said.

“We’re just trying to take this beautiful part of Jewish culture, this form of music that not a lot of people know and give it to the people in a very digestible way that they wouldn’t normally otherwise hear.”

Schmuck plays at Liam Flynn’s Ale House, 22 W North Ave., Baltimore, every Sunday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

HaZamir Headed to New York

For many choir members, fostering Jewish identity is one of HaZamir’s strengths. (Provided)

For many choir members, fostering Jewish identity is one of HaZamir’s strengths. (Provided)

On Sunday, after a weekend of rigorous rehearsals, Shabbat activities and networking with the more than 350 fellow singers from around the country and Israel, HaZamir and its cadre of teenage singers will make its debut at Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center in New York.

HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir, will premiere a new work, “L’Dor VaDor, Generation to Generation,” commissioned for the choral group and composed by Cantor Gerald Cohen.

Among the 350 vocalists will be 28 Marylanders from HaZamir’s Baltimore chapter. The students hail from 12 schools in Baltimore, suburban Washington, D.C., Frederick and Olney. The group includes three eighth-graders.

“The students come from everywhere,” said Erika Pardes Schon, the Baltimore chapter’s conductor. “It’s a competitive audition, and it’s a high bar.”

There are 26 American chapters of HaZamir, with a 27th chapter soon forming in Washington, D.C. There are also five Israeli chapters, with a sixth to be launched next year.

The students need to have the talent but after that, the commitment to two-hour rehearsals every Sunday night.

For some, that’s no big deal.

“I love singing,” said Daniel Goldman, a junior at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School and a teen leader in the Baltimore chapter. “Singing is my life, you ask my siblings. They hate it because I do it all the time.”

Another undeniable component of HaZamir is the friendships forged through national festivals.

“I’m talking to kids in Israel every single day,” he said. “I need to interact with these people, who come from a totally different background, whether they be from Israel or Cleveland. Everyone has a different experience.”

Israel’s newest chapter, in Ashkelon, will be performing in New York, then spending time in Baltimore. That chapter was launched in partnership with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership.

While Goldman has made friends all over through HaZamir, he acknowledged the choral group’s deeper purpose of fostering Jewish identity.

Fellow singer Abram Foster, a senior at Park School, said the Jewishness of the music gives it much deeper meaning for him.

“Really, we’re teaching Jewish values through music. We’re building Jewish identity through music.”

“Music in Hebrew has such spiritual connotations and has such depth and is enriched by the incredibly rich musical history of Judaism,” he said.

Schon agrees, adding that for some kids, HaZamir doesn’t just foster their Jewish connection, it is their Jewish connection.

“We teach Judaism through music. We discuss the source of the text, ethics of Mishnah, study sources with our teens so they understand the value of the music in the Jewish narrative, in Jewish history,” she said. “Really, we’re teaching Jewish values through music. We’re building Jewish identity through music.”

Goldman said strengthening his Jewish identity through HaZamir will help him in college, where he may face some opposition to his beliefs, especially regarding Israel.

“By using our voices, not only do we create our voice of song, a voice that’s nice to listen to, but we create our voices of change, voices that combat social conformity and advocate for social change in the world,” he said. “I’m going to college in a few years and I’m going to face a lot of opposition. In HaZamir, I’ve found that voice.”

And that’s the goal, Schon said, to turn singers into leaders.

“Each chapter is able to elect and appoint its own teen leader. We have two,” she said. “These teenagers are taught leadership skills. They have summer and winter retreats for the teen leaders where they are trained to lead Jewishly.”

HaZamir Baltimore performs at the Gordon Center on March 24, Beth Tfiloh for a Yom HaShoa commemoration on April 19 and the Myerberg Senior Center on May 3.[/pullquote]

Feeling Panicked? It Could Be in the Genes

In designing and testing theories on how the body programs its 19,000 genes, Moshe Szyf, a geneticist and molecular biologist at McGill University in Montreal, has expanded the notion of Jewish guilt.

Sure, we might feel bad about passing along hereditary genes that raise our baby’s future risk of breast cancer, obesity or depression. But now, thanks to Szyf’s research, we must contend with the possibility that our experiences early in life could shift how those genes are expressed for generations to come.

Thus young stockbrokers who escaped from the tumbling towers of 9/11 might be raising preschoolers a decade later who are prone to panic when they smell burnt paper or fireplace ash. Those who crash dieted during teenage years might wind up with grandchildren with slower metabolisms designed to better handle starvation.

Researchers studying the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors have found that they have higher rates of post-traumatic stress after enduring car accidents, possibly due to modifications in their stress hormone system inherited from their survivor parents.
Szyf, however, prefers to take an optimistic view of his field, called behavioral epigenetics.

“It introduces an element of freedom and responsibility,” Szyf says. “With a deterministic genome, we can’t decide what kinds of mutations we pass on, but if experience is important in building a healthy genome, it gives us a feeling of some level of control.”

In his current research, Szyf is attempting to determine whether tinkering with environmental conditions, like diet or stress levels, could alter the way in which certain genes function, specifically those involved in cancer.

“I’m interested in identifying early markers of adversity to see if they can be altered with lifestyle interventions or drugs,” Szyf says.
Born in London and raised in a family of observant Jews, Szyf headed to Bar-Ilan University in Israel to study political science and Jewish studies, but parental encouragement to learn more “practical” subjects pushed him to transfer to dental school at Hebrew University. While working on his doctoral thesis with an Israeli epigenetics researcher in the late 1970s, he found his real passion and says he has never regretted his decision to abandon dentistry.

For the past two decades, Szyf and his McGill colleagues have been studying methyl groups that attach at various points to long strands of DNA. Szyf refers to the methyl groups as “punctuation” that mark genes in certain places to determine how they work to help cells manufacture proteins — akin to changing the meaning of a sentence by swapping out an exclamation point for a period.

“These methyl groups make out the language of our DNA, and if they go awry, you’re in trouble,” Szyf says.

Epigenetics researchers initially believed such changes in genetic programming occurred only during fetal development, putting even more pressure on expectant mothers to eat nutritiously, manage stress and avoid environmental exposures with potential risks to their developing babies.

But recent landmark studies conducted by Szyf and others suggest that methyl groups could be added to DNA in adulthood — at least in rodents — due to changes in diet or environmental toxins. Those epigenetic additions could be passed on to future generations, causing permanent changes in gene function.

In a study published last year in the journal Nature, researchers from the Emory University School of Medicine found that mice exposed to a particular odor along with small electroshocks developed a fear of that smell and later gave birth to offspring that also had a high stress response whenever they were exposed to the odor. The researchers also found methylation changes in a smell receptor gene in both the mothers and offspring.

In other experiments, Szyf and his research group examined the DNA of rat pups raised by mothers who neglected them. They found that genes controlling the production of stress hormone receptors had high levels of methyl groups attached to them compared to genes from pups raised by attentive, nurturing mothers. Pups raised by inattentive mothers also acted more hyper and skittish in response to stress.

The researchers then studied another litter of rat pups from the same mothers, but this time they had the nurturing mothers raise pups from inattentive mothers and vice versa. They found that the extra methyl groups were again added to the pups raised by the neglectful mothers and that these pups had an overactive stress response.

Both sets of pups with the extra methyl groups passed them on to their offspring.

“While the genome can take centuries to change, with epigenetics the physiological response can be immediate but also with lasting effects,” Szyf says.

That’s unless an intervention is found to shift things back. Szyf and his colleagues found such an intervention in the form of a drug designed to remove methyl groups. Szyf was able to reverse the extra methylation in rats born with it and also change their behaviors back to placid tendencies.

Just how much such epigenetic changes impact human behavior remains largely unknown, researchers acknowledge.

“We certainly know that human experiences affect how our genes are expressed,” says Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, who has performed epigenetic studies on Holocaust survivors. “But we don’t know for sure how this process works and how strong a contributor epigenetics really is compared to other things like genes.”

Life experience capable of shaping perceptions and reactions even without touching DNA. In studies published over the past decade, Yehuda has found that children of Holocaust survivors have altered stress response systems and differences in methylation on the gene that regulates the number of stress hormone receptors. She also found that these alterations were complex and dependent on a mother’s age when she went through the Holocaust and whether a father experienced it, too.

“Do uniquely Jewish experiences from the past — like the pogroms our great-grandparents escaped — affect the way we behave today? I think that’s a valid question,” Szyf says.

“Jews that left Europe were highly self-selected for their survival skills and perseverance,” he adds, which might have been due to their genetic tendencies rather than epigenetic changes.

In the end, though, it may not matter whether inherited genes or inherited methylation of those genes or plain-old nurture plays the dominant role.

“Jews have always tended to lead lives that emphasized education, family structure and religious values,” Szyf says. So it should come as no surprise that these values have been passed on.

Deborah Kotz writes about health and science for the Washington Jewish Week.

Maryland’s March To Madness Ross Greenburg does it again, this time featuring the Terps

031315_sportsOn Sunday night, March 15 at 6 p.m., fans of the University of Maryland men’s basketball team will be watching the NCAA Tournament selection show on CBS to find out who — and where — the Terps will be playing in Round 1 of the 68-team “March Madness.”

Maryland, which just completed its first year in the Big Ten Conference, will join Notre Dame, which just finished its first season in the ACC,  as the two teams are featured in a 90-minute special, “Hoops U,” that will air March 18 on Showtime at 9 p.m.

The behind-the-scenes documentary will give fans an inside look on how both teams made it to the NCAA Tournament. Fans will see the Terps during the final month of conference play and the Big Ten Tournament.

The man behind the show is Ross Greenburg, who, simply put, is one of the most important sports documentarians of the 21st century. He turns 60 this year and spent 33 years at HBO, starting as an intern and working his way up to executive producer. In his final 11 years at the network he was the president of HBO Sports, establishing one of the premier sports brands in television history.

Along the way he picked up 52 Sports Emmys and eight Peabody Awards, and he is responsible for such iconic programs as “Inside the NFL,” “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” “HBO Championship Boxing” and “Hard Knocks,” which began in 2001 featuring the Ravens.

Late in 2011, Greenburg left HBO to start his own New York-based production company, and Showtime, CBS Sports, the NHL, NBC Sports and EPIX among others quickly signed on as clients. “Hoops U” for Showtime is just one of his latest creations.

The JT recently talked to Greenburg about “Hoops U” and the unique stamp he puts on all of his productions.

Why Maryland and Notre Dame for “Hoops U”?

Greenburg: “Both teams changing conferences made for a good story. Plus, we had two outstanding basketball programs with passionate fan bases and great histories. In Maryland’s case, the Big Ten Conference and the school’s athletic department gave us free rein to do what we needed to do, and Terps head coach  Mark Turgeon has been fantastic from Day 1 of the project. Before we started the project we knew that both teams were tournament-quality squads. However, things got very interesting when both Maryland and Notre Dame began hovering around the Top 10 in the national rankings, heading into the NCAA Tournament.”

How do you get coaches and players to allow you into their daily lives?

“It all starts with trust, and we have over the years proven that our film crews can be imbedded with teams and stay out of the way so that the teams hardly know we are there.  We want to showcase how difficult being a student-athlete is, and we want viewers to see the challenges these young men face both on the court as well as in the classroom. To accomplish that, both universities gave us amazing access to the players on the court, in the dorms, in the classrooms and on team planes. That type of access has helped us create what we hope the fans will see as a comprehensive look at being a basketball player at Maryland and Notre Dame.”

How far does “Hoops U” go in its coverage?

“We take both teams through their regular-season conference play and the conference tournaments, and we will be there when both teams find out where they will be playing in
the NCAA Tournament. Most fans really don’t think about the fact that the vast majority of these young men will not play professional basketball. Their careers [will be] in something other than sports.”

Have you always been a sports fan?

“Yes. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960’s as a kid in Scarsdale, N.Y., my three heroes were Willie Mays, Joe Namath and Jimmy Brown. I loved the entire Knicks team of Bill Bradley, Willis Reed, Clyde Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Dick Barnett and later, Jerry Lucas and Earl Monroe. I was also a Rangers fanatic, but the Jets were always on another level for me. I remember rushing back from Sunday school at the Westchester Reform Temple so we could go to Shea Stadium to watch Joe Willie warm up. We were season ticket-holders from 1960, the first year the team played in New York, then known as the Titans. As a Jets fan, still the greatest day in sports in my life was when, as a kid, I got to go to Super Bowl III in Miami to see the Jets upset the Colts.”

Who were your biggest influences?

“My father Robert, my mother Janice and my older brother Michael. My father was a great storyteller who was also funny and personable. He was a brilliant man who made sure his family and kids were always provided for.  He was into computers in the late 1950s. He graduated from Iona University at the age of 56 and went on to get his master’s in economics from Fordham at 58. At the time of his death in 1982 he was a professor of economics at SUNY-Stony Brook and had started a personal computer company. My mother was a gifted athlete who never really competed.  But, most of all, she always treated people with a “nice” disposition. She used to say to me it is so easy to be “nice” to people. Her humanity was infectious, and of the many things she taught me, one of the most important was that it’s OK to cry. At the age of 60, when I watch the rough cuts of my documentaries, I will cry tears of emotion from a good story told. Finally, my brother Michael was a gifted running back, golfer, skier and one of the most liberally minded people I have ever met. We were brought up in the 1960s, and I idolized him. He always lent a helping hand to those in need and was particularly sensitive to the civil rights movement. That passion for equality among all people has carried through to many of the documentaries I have done over the years.”

What advice do you have for people who want to make sports documentaries? 

“I teach two things. First is the old saying: ‘Make them laugh, make them cry, make them think.’ Then comes: ‘Every good story has a beginning, middle and end.’ Follow those rules, and you should be off to a good start.”

Baltimore Jewish Film Festival Fest features award-winning documentaries, dramas from Europe, Israel, Russia

Ronit Elkabetz stars in and co-directs “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” the true story of of a woman’s five-year struggle to obtain a divorce in Israel’s rabbinical courts. (Provided)

Ronit Elkabetz stars in and co-directs “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” the true story of of a woman’s five-year struggle to obtain a divorce in Israel’s rabbinical courts. (Provided)

The 27th annual William and Irene Weinberg Family Baltimore Jewish Film Festival runs at the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts from March 22 to April 28, featuring 11 films with subjects that originate from France, Israel, Germany, Great Britain, Russia and the United States.

Themes this year, both meaty and provocative, tackle Israeli/Palestinian relations and delve into modern Israeli culture as well as scrutinize Russian immigration policies and explore the Holocaust and its aftermath. Several evenings feature after-film question-and-answer sessions with guest speakers and filmmakers.

Marty Cohen, who has screened “a couple thousand films” during his seven-season tenure as festival chairman, said, “The selection process is vigorous; we received over 170 films” this year.

A committee used a standardized scoring process while screening to choose the top 35 or 40 films. From that, said Cohen, the final list was chosen, and “we work to make sure that we’re giving the audience good quality films.”

Cohen highly recommends “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” considered for best foreign film at the Golden Globe Awards and also enjoying theatrical release nationwide.

Directed by Israeli brother-and-sister team Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz and starring Ronit, “Gett” is a sober and powerful drama based on the true story of Viviane Amsalem’s five-year struggle to secure a divorce from the only legal authority allowed to grant divorce in Israel, the Rabbinical Court. Though separated from each other for years, Amsalem’s husband is stubbornly unresponsive to her request for divorce, manipulative and at times doesn’t even show up when summoned to court. Filmed entirely in the space of a small, sparse rabbinical courtroom, Amsalem and the lawyers are incredulous with the husband’s inaction, yet the trial continues, because the power remains in the hands of the men.

The film is third in a trilogy about Viviane’s struggle as a woman in Israel; the other films are “To Take a Wife” and “7 Days.”

Other dramas include “Run Boy Run,” based on a true story about 9-year old Srulik, a Polish boy who, at the urging of his father, flees to the woods to escape the Warsaw ghetto and survives in his solitary struggle to outlast the Nazi occupation and keep his Jewish faith alive.

“The Art Dealer/L’antiquaire,” follows a Jewish woman’s quest to recover family paintings that were stolen by the Nazis. During her search, she discovers family secrets that are better off kept hidden. “24 Days,” another real-life story, is a mystery that begins in a cellphone shop and ends in a kidnapping. “Barriers,” from Israel, tells the story of a soldier, a checkpoint, a bomb threat and how to negotiate ethical decisions in an unpredictable world.

“Farewell Baghdad/The Dove Flyer” is a historical look at a one-year period from 1950 to 1951, when Iraqi Jews were told to leave or be expelled from their country and nearly 130,000 Jews left, creating the dissolution of one of the most ancient communities in the world. The story is told through Jewish families’ experiences in the Iraqi capital, just as the State of Israel was being established, and the hostilities they suffered along the way.

Shorts are featured in this year’s festival too, including the lighthearted comedy/drama “Hannah Cohen’s Holy Communion” from Great Britain. The film examines the intersection of Jewish and Irish culture through the eyes of a 7-year-old Jewish girl’s desire to make Holy Communion and just fit in like her friends. “Strangers” from Israel, which won best short film at Sundance Film Festival, looks at how fear can serve as a motivator to overcome racial prejudice and hatred.

Documentary lovers can find some gems at the fest, first in “Above and Beyond,” co-presented with Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, which looks at a group of World War II pilots who, in 1948, volunteered to fight in Israel’s War of Independence. The men helped prevent the possible annihilation of Israel at the very moment of its birth and also laid the groundwork for the Israeli Air Force.

“Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem,” illustrates the lives of the two beloved Jewish icons, by weaving together their wit, wisdom and talent. “Stateless” is a historical account of tens of thousands of Soviet Jews allowed to leave the USSR in the late 1980s, only to discover that their final destination, America, no longer welcomed them so they remained stranded in Italy. The director, Michael Drob, will be on hand for a post-film discussion. The film is co-presented with the Jewish Museum of Maryland.


The 27th Annual William and Irene Weinberg Family
Baltimore Jewish Film Festival

March 22 to April 28

Gordon Center for the Performing Arts
Rosenbloom JCC
3506 Gwynnbrook Ave.,
Owings Mills, MD 21117

For full schedule and tickets, call 410.356.7469 or visit