A Sense of Jewishness

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

The late author, essayist, filmmaker and public intellectual Susan Sontag insisted on defining herself and adamantly resisted being labeled by others.

Sontag vehemently objected to being called a lesbian, for example, and to the idea of classifying sexuality. As filmmaker Nancy Kates puts it, “She was an unidentified queer person who mostly slept with women.”

Sontag, who was born Susan Rosenblatt and adopted her surname at the age of 13, had an equally complicated relationship with her Jewishness.

“She couldn’t hide being Jewish, and she wanted to be a Jewish intellectual, but she didn’t want to be labeled Jewish, in some way,” Kates said. “[Virtually] everyone in her little world was Jewish, at the Partisan Review and the New York Review of Books, and she lived in a world of New York intellectuals at a time when that mattered much more than it does now.

“But for some reason,” Kates said, “that [Jewish] label didn’t resonate with her very well except in the intellectual sense of it.”

Kates’ incisive, textured documentary, “Regarding Susan Sontag,” premieres Dec. 8 on HBO, a few weeks before the 10th anniversary of its subject’s death.

Her interest in whatever Sontag was writing and thinking goes back nearly three decades to Kates’ undergraduate years at Harvard. Yet, the Boston Jewish native, who has lived in Berkeley, Calif., for many years, admits that she didn’t grasp the importance of Sontag’s Jewishness when she embarked on the film.

During production, though, she came across a clip of Sontag in a 1980 documentary asserting that the defining occurrence of her pre-adolescence was seeing images of the Holocaust in a book when she was 12, That would make it 1945.

“There are ways you could see that as the foundational moment in her life,” Kates said. “Her high school quasi-boyfriend and two of her girlfriends [later in life] were Holocaust survivors. And she was a teenager in the 1940s. The Holocaust was enormously important in her life in a way that it wouldn’t be for an American Jew growing up today.”

Kates deduces that Sontag’s lifelong interest in photography and war can be traced to that seismic moment in 1945 — if, she notes, the anecdote is true.

The filmmaker conceived and structured “Regarding Susan Sontag” to leave as much room as possible for the viewer to arrive at their own perception of Sontag. That has a great deal to do with Kates’ abhorrence of generalizations and
oversimplifications, but it also reflects her view that she doesn’t completely know or understand her enigmatic subject — even after years of research and interviews.

Kates is undecided if Sontag was in a Jewish closet or simply ambivalent about her Jewish identity. Sontag’s limited writings on Israel don’t offer a lot of guidance.

At the time of the Yom Kippur War, Sontag said, “I am generally in favor of the Israeli government.” A few months later, Sontag shot a documentary in Israel, “Promised Lands,” that is neither rabidly pro-Palestinian nor rabidly pro-Israeli. But at the end of her life, she gave the Oscar Romero memorial speech at the Rothko Chapel in Texas supporting the refusenik soldiers who declined to serve in the Occupied Territories.

“So she had a sense of Jewish conscience, I would say, Jewish ethics,” said Kates. “Sontag talked in [her groundbreaking essay] ‘Notes on Camp’ about Jewish moral seriousness. So there’s this little thread of Judaism in the film, or Jewish thought, or Jewish something, and it’s not me — it’s her. But she was not a yarmulke-wearing, breast-beating, Shabbat-attending kind of Jew in any way.”

Through the Eyes of Dinah

Rebecca Ferguson (right) gives a powerful performance as Dinah. With her is Rachel, played by  Morena Baccarin. (©2014 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved. Photo Credits: Joey L.)

Rebecca Ferguson (right) gives a powerful performance as Dinah. With her is Rachel, played by Morena Baccarin.
(©2014 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved. Photo Credits: Joey L.)

“The Red Tent,” the best-selling 1997 novel by Anita Diamant, is coming to the Lifetime cable television network next month as a two-part miniseries.

Diamant’s novel, adapted for film by Elizabeth Chandler (“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”) and Anne Meredith (“Secrets of Eden”), gives a fictionalized account of the life of Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob and Leah.

The novel and television adaptation thread through familiar biblical scenes but told through the eyes of Dinah, who learns the wisdom of her mothers while sitting at their feet in the red tent, a place only for women.

We see Jacob laboring for his uncle Laban; marrying Leah, Rachel and their handmaidens Zilpah and Bilhah; setting off to seek his own fortunes with his many sons and one daughter; encountering and reconciling with his brother Esau; and finally settling in the land near Shechem.

It is in the palace of Shechem where Dinah meets her prince, Shalem, and marries him without her father’s consent. Not placated by the bride-price
offered, Jacob and his sons demand that the king, his son and all the men in their household submit to circumcision in order for Dinah to remain. Simon and Levi, brothers to Dinah, are not satisfied and while the men of Shechem are incapacitated, they and their shepherds slay the king, prince and every male in the city, before kidnapping their sister and returning to Jacob’s camp. Enraged and heartbroken, Dinah curses her father and leaves her mothers and brothers for a life in Egypt.

This scene, which proves so pivotal in Dinah’s fictionalized life, feels rushed from courtship to bloody end. The hastiness is acknowledged by Rachel (Morena Baccarin), and can be forgiven in that the telling of Dinah’s courtship (or rape, depending on your interpretation) and the death of her husband is but one small part of the story of Jacob’s family’s march toward Egypt.

The rest of the movie leaves the Torah’s written account entirely. Dinah gives birth to a child who is reared as a son of Egypt. She cares for him as his maid but is forbidden by her mother-in-law from revealing her true relationship. When her son is sent away, she finds some comfort in a new husband and as a midwife to the poor working-class women and slaves before, in a twist of fate, she is reunited with her brother, Joseph, and eventually her father, Jacob, as he lies on his deathbed.

Minnie Driver (left) shows wisdom and anguish as Leah. With her is Rebecca (center) and Rachel.

Minnie Driver (left) shows wisdom and anguish as Leah. With her is Rebecca (center) and Rachel.

Minnie Driver fully inhabits the character of Leah. Every bit the Sunday school depiction of a matriarch, Driver’s Leah shows wisdom, restraint, forgiveness and anguish in her relationships with her husband, sister-wives and her sole daughter.

Baccarin as Jacob’s beloved Rachel plays her role well, but her character is given little complexity. It is a shame the script adaptation did not delve more into the relationship between Rachel and her niece and apprentice, a relationship that helps give purpose to Dinah’s life in the novel.

Iain Glen, of “Game of Thrones” fame, as patriarch Jacob is an excellent match for Driver. He too adds soulfulness to his character’s long life. You can feel through the screen his anxiety leading up to meeting his brother, Esau, his uneasiness at meeting with his mother, Rebecca (Debra Winger), his anger at his sons and the love and hurt he experiences through the actions of his only daughter.

Will Tudor as Joseph gives his best performance on Night 2 in an angry scene with his sister Dinah and her son.

Golden-Globe nominee Rebecca Ferguson in the title role gives a powerful performance, growing with her character from a strong-willed, sometimes insolent, young girl to a stricken widow and mother to a forgiving peacemaker and midwife like her mothers before her.

A conversation guide with the tag “The Bible gave her one line … now her legend will be told” (not exactly true, Dinah is mentioned specifically by name throughout Genesis 34:1-31), is available online. Though written by Women of Faith, a nondenominational Christian organization based in Texas, the guide can act as a “catalyst for meaningful conversation” for members of any faith background, say the show’s producers.

“The Red Tent” two-night miniseries runs Dec. 7 and 8 at 9 p.m.


Spotlight on Nostalgia

A Kutsher's postcard.

A Kutsher’s postcard.

When young independent music enthusiasts descended on the antiquated Jewish resort of Kutsher’s for an international indie rock concert series in 2008, it was “kind of like ‘Cocoon’ meets ‘The Shining,’” Barry Hogan recalls in the forthcoming documentary film “Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort.”

The comment by Hogan, founder of the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival organization, exemplifies the widening generational gap that ultimately forced Kutsher’s to close in December 2013. Yet, despite the hotel’s obvious state of physical decline, Hogan observes, the venue still had the right charm and “intimate” stage for bands and indie “nerd” fans to raise the roof during electric performances.

Similar nostalgia, pride and humor characterize the other interviews in “Welcome to Kutsher’s,” which is premiering Dec. 6 in Palm Beach, Fla. Viewers will be treated to a quirky smorgasbord of “Borscht Belt” culture. Directors Ian Rosenberg and Caroline Laskow explore the origins of Jewish American investment in the Catskill Mountains, beginning in the late 19th century. Next, the filmmaking pair visits Kutsher’s Country Club. This prominent hotel was a magnet for vacationing Jewish families, as well as a springboard to success for prominent entertainers and gifted athletes, throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

Now that the Catskills region is in decline, the film honors the legacy of those who made summer memories so colorful for so many generations and sheds new light on a vibrant chapter of the American Jewish experience.

Mark Kutsher, then the hotel’s owner, was proud to host the indie rock concert series in 2008. Staying true to his family’s inviting and experimenting business style, he admires the youthful spirit and dedication of the festival participants, even though he finds their loud music “physically damaging.”

Indeed, the famous concert hall at Kutsher’s is a cherished relic of an illustrious past. Ray Charles performed there. Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, the late Joan Rivers and many other stars made regular appearances at the hotel at some point in their careers. Assembling this cast of characters epitomized the inclusive spirit that was at the heart of the Borscht Belt experience.

We shouldn’t forget that the Jewish resorts in the Catskills “were created in large part because other hotels in the region refused to admit Jews around the turn of the century through the 1930s,” Rosenberg reminds audiences.

“The phrase, ‘No Hebrews or Consumptives’ were included in advertisements for these restricted hotels,” he says.

The culture of Kutsher’s and other Jewish hotels in the Catskills evolved to accommodate religiously observant patrons, providing Friday night and holiday services as well as kosher cooking. For the first time in history, it was possible for strictly religious Jewish families to go on holiday.

The story of Kutsher’s is also a tale of assimilation. Ironically, the oppressed population that initially sought refuge and release in the form of an affordable and accessible family vacation ultimately outgrew the resorts that had nurtured their prospering culture. The Catskills no longer appealed to newly affluent Jews.

Wilt Chamberlain worked as a bellhop at Kutsher’s before going on to fame and  fortune as one of the NBA’s all-time greats.

Wilt Chamberlain worked as a bellhop at Kutsher’s before going on to fame and
fortune as one of the NBA’s all-time greats.

One poignant moment in the film recounts the effect the advent of jet travel had on the hotel. “As things went on, people were asking for all the amenities with the hotel,” family matriarch Helen Kutsher, regarded the “First Lady of the Catskills,” says.

“Do you have an indoor pool? Do you have a golf course?” callers would often ask before making a reservation, according to Helen. “They wanted everything. … I asked many people, ‘Do you play golf? Do you like swimming?’ ‘No,’ they’d answer, ‘but I like to know that you have it.’”

Competition for Kutsher’s was intense, as luxury hotels proliferated around the country, offering deluxe packages with no discriminatory barriers to entry. Likewise, Caribbean cruises came into vogue. Even more alluring, the prospect of buying property in Florida, where aging patrons could live on what became known as “permanent vacation,” defined decades of exodus from the Catskills tradition.

Perhaps the most nostalgic description of a vacation culture in decline can be found in the popular film “Dirty Dancing,” which depicts a Jewish resort “largely believed to be based on Kutsher’s,” says Laskow. Toward the end of the film, Max Kellerman (Jake Weston), a fictional hotel owner, watches the season-ending pageant and remarks, “It all seems to be ending. You think kids want to come with their parents to take foxtrot lessons? Trips to Europe, that’s what the kids want. Twenty-two countries in three days.”

From the 1970s through the 1990s, diverging interests and a widening generation gap unraveled the close-knit traditions that Jewish families had established at their favorite Catskills resort. What exactly are these traditions? “Welcome to Kutsher’s” won’t leave you “hungry” for details. The documentary focuses on the Jewish home cooking that earned the region its Borscht Belt nickname. Viewers will enjoy learning about the unique personalities in the Kutsher family that contributed to the hotel’s family-oriented atmosphere. Dedicated employees recount the warm feelings they harbor for the owners, and guests share fond memories of their family vacations.

Rosenberg and Laskow admit that they arrived late to the Kutsher’s scene, making their first trip to the hotel in 2002. But thinning crowds and unrented rooms aside, there was still plenty of magic and the experience inspired them.

“Ian learned to ice skate after an impromptu lesson with Celia Duffy, whom we would later feature in our documentary,” Laskow recounts. “We took the Seabreeze special cocktails out to the pool, attended a still-life art class and enormously enjoyed our many meals.”

Perhaps time was running out for this form of entertainment and the Catskills resort atmosphere, but it’s clear that this filmmaking duo taps into an essential aspect of Jewish American culture. “Welcome to Kutsher’s” offers a heartfelt view of an iconic Jewish establishment, chronicling memories to be cherished.

Making Thanksgiving Jewish

112114_foodHow do we make Thanksgiving Jewish? Many scholars believe that the secular American holiday, first celebrated in 1621 by the pilgrims, was deliberately modeled on Sukkot. There are myriad ways to make the meal kosher and also stretch the food to enjoy through Shabbos. In addition to roasting one whole turkey, make one large turkey breast, too. This provides plenty for Shabbat meals. Who doesn’t want to keep Thanksgiving going? On Shabbat, sprinkle some fresh cranberries around the turkey breast or in your regular Shabbat stuffing. Ever hear of a Tzimmes cake? I tweaked the recipe below to add another touch of delicious Yiddishkeit to the Thanksgiving table. Simply search online for the phrase “Kosher Thanksgiving recipes,” and you will find numerous links to sites (such as The Kosher Channel) that give a veritable cornucopia of kosher Thanksgiving ideas.

As for annual pumpkin pie, if your filling shrinks upon cooling, disguise it: Sprinkle edges with chopped pecans, crushed gingersnaps or piped whipped cream around the edge. I think the pilgrims would have loved pareve pumpkin pie!

Tips & Tricks

  • When stuffing a turkey, try sealing the opening with a small raw potato.
  • Unsalted butter can be stored in the freezer indefinitely if it is wrapped and sealed airtight.
  • Just before carving a turkey, carefully remove the skin in  pieces as large as possible. Cover the carved turkey with pan juices and the roasted skin to help it stay moist and warm.

  • Click below to view the recipes:

    ‘Unity Through Diversity’

    Designer James Rouse’s vision for the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center when he planned the Columbia community in the 1970s was to bring together different faiths and exchange ideas, not just share the same roof. The current exhibit at the Meeting House Gallery there is a perfect example of that sentiment.

    The gallery fills the large atrium lobby that connects the five congregations’ worship spaces, and “Unity Through Diversity” features work from 20 congregants across all denominations.

    The idea for a gallery took root when Ronni Berkowitz, a longtime Columbia Jewish Congregation member, bemoaned the fact that the lobby walls had been blank for almost 40 years, said fellow CJC member Will Krupka, chair of the 13-member gallery committee. Since its inception two years ago, the gallery has hosted juried shows from many different artists, but this is the first show that consists solely of congregants’ work.

    “You go to your religious services — and find out the person you’ve been going to services with is an artist!” said Krupka. “They come out of the woodwork.”

    The congregant artists followed similar submission guidelines for juried shows, and the gallery will not exhibit nudes or any work with religious or political messages.

    “I can’t tell you how excited I was for these artists that have never [before] been recognized,” added Krupka.

    This is the first exhibit for wood carver Dan Cohen. He and his wife Susan, both 71, have been members of CJC for almost 40 years and are elated to be part of the show. Susan, who has had severe chronic orthopedic pain for years, said when she’s immersed in creating her vivid, textured oil paintings, her physical discomfort disappears.

    “I’m so absorbed in what I do and want to do next,” she said. “After about two hours I stop and realize I’m exhausted, but for two hours I put all of my energy into creating beauty.”

    Dan, who began woodcarving mostly wildlife figures seven years ago when he retired from his job at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said he grew up watching his parents make woodcarvings. Now, his craft is all consuming.

    “It allows me to use my skills in doing detail work, so it’s a challenge and it’s very rewarding to take a block of wood and be able to get art out of it,” he said.

    Linda Baer, a Pikesville native and new cantor for Bet Aviv, said she “serves two mistresses, art and music,” and is a longtime artist. She has a new CD for release soon and created a mixed-media piece for the show, a nocturne scene painted on an old mandolin.

    “[This show has] tapped some hidden treasures — there’s an extraordinary range of media styles and messages,” she said. “Our faith is just one part of who we are. We all have a secular part, and we all got to see each other’s vision.”

    Peter Barbernitz is the associate for adult-faced formation at St. Johns the Evangelist Catholic Church. His wife, Linda Pescarmona, has pottery in the show, and Barbernitz’s landscape and nature photography are also on display, including a cardinal caught on a snowy branch and a sweeping image of fog rolling in over Sienna, Italy. He said that it’s been enjoyable to see others’ creative endeavors and that he’s received a lot of positive responses. Barbernitz has been a member of the gallery committee for a year.

    “Most of the people [on the committee] are artists themselves, so they’re more creative but less organized. I’m less creative and more organized. So I fill a role that needs to be done,” he said, laughing.

    Potter Sue Nicholson, 76, is also on the committee and has been a member of Columbia United Christian Church since 1975. She has several pieces in the exhibit.

    “We talk a lot in our meeting house about interfaith activities,” said Nicholson. “In practice that is hard because we have different schedules and activities, but this [exhibit] in fact is truly interfaith, and I’m very proud of it.”

    Building manager Mike Shaw said that the gallery has been a welcome addition.

    “What a benefit that gallery is to our facility and how much we’ve enjoyed it since we started,” he said.

    Krupka said the gallery has been recognized by the Howard County Road to the Arts and the Columbia Festival of the Arts. The committee recently installed professional gallery lighting and display cases for multidimensional work, he added.

    Approximately 3,000 people come through the building each month for worship services and other activities. The center celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

    Jeff Zaller, 73, a member of Bet Aviv, and Stuart Berlin, 63, a member of CJC, both have photos in the current show and attended an opening reception where congregants brought food to share with the more than 100 people who came to meet the artists.

    “At the reception last Sunday, all the congregations were all together to celebrate the human spirit,” said Berlin. “It’s absolutely fantastic that we’re all involved. They’re taking people’s ingenuity and talents, obviously God given, and that’s such a force of good to see how people express themselves in different art forms.”


    ‘Unity Through Diversity’

    Includes congregants’ work from Bet Aviv, Columbia Baptist Fellowship, Columbia Jewish Congregation, Columbia United Christian Church, and St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church.

    Meeting House GalleryAt Oakland Mills Interfaith Center through Jan. 3, 2015
    5885 Robert Oliver Place in Columbia.
    For more information, call 410-730-4090 or visit themeetinghouse.org/gallery.


    Jewish Rock for the Ages

    Safam, from left: Dan Funk, Joel Sussman, Robbie Solomon and Alan Nelson.

    Safam, from left: Dan Funk, Joel Sussman, Robbie Solomon and Alan Nelson.

    It’s been almost 40 years since the original musicians of Safam first made music together.

    “Safam means mustache in Hebrew,” explained Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s cantor, Robbie Solomon, a founding group member. “The name comes from the 1970s when we all had facial hair.”

    While band members aren’t as hairy as they were in 1974, their music — whether rock and roll, pop, folk, Latin, Chasidic or cantorial — and its messages continue to inspire. On Nov. 22, the group will reunite at BHC for an evening of the Jewish American music that has become their trademark. As an added bonus, HaZamir Baltimore will join Safam on stage for several songs.

    Born in Baltimore, Solomon first met fellow bandmates Dan Funk, Joel Sussman and Alan Nelson after he moved to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music. All three were members of the prestigious Zamir Chorale of Boston, but they wanted to form a Jewish rock band. At the time, said Solomon, a singer who also plays guitar, flute and mandolin, he was also in training to become a cantor. (Raised Orthodox, Solomon is certified by both the Conservative and Reform movements.)

    “In the beginning, Safam played mostly Israeli popular music from the ‘Hassidic Song Festival’ book, but then Joel and I started introducing our own original songs,” he said. “As time went on, it became more and more original music. Soon, we started writing about [Jewish] social and political movements rather than about religion.”

    In 1979, when Jews were fleeing the Soviet Union in droves, Solomon composed “Leaving Mother Russia.” The song became an anthem for the Soviet Jewry movement. Solomon said one of his finest moments was when Safam performed it for 300,000 people in New York City’s United Nation Plaza during a rally on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

    “All 300,000 people were singing ‘Mother Russia’ together. The song had been inspired by Natan Sharansky, and he came up on stage and sang it with us.”

    In time, Solomon continued, “People approached us about their favorite causes. The Ethiopian Jewish movement, Yamit [the Israeli settlements] and political prisoners were big issues. More and more, this became our signature music. In a lot of ways, we were never matched in that arena.”

    In addition to their protest songs, the band, which was joined by a series of bassists and drummers, also wrote songs about family, Jewish pride and liberation — anything that related to the American Jewish journey.

    Solomon recalled that during the 1980s and ’90s, the group performed almost every weekend in the U.S., England, the Caribbean and Canada. Together, the six-piece band has recorded 10 albums as well as Chanukah and Passover collections.

    Another highlight for Solomon took place last summer while in Israel.

    “One of my choral pieces was performed with a 20-piece orchestra and 40 singers,” he said. “That was a tremendous, wonderful experience.”

    Now, Safam only performs a handful of concerts each year. But Solomon and Sussman continue to come up with new material.

    At the upcoming concert, the group will present several of its new compositions, but overall, said Solomon, “the idea is to track our career to the present day, to get a sense of the arc. It’s daunting that it’s been 40 years. We’ve all stayed very close. It’s been a major part of my life and one of the things that drove me to be a cantor.” JT

    For more information, visit bhcong.org.


    Great Expectations



    We are only in the first month of the National Basketball Association season, and all eyes are on the Cleveland Cavaliers. They are co-favorites with the Chicago Bulls for the Eastern Conference title and a spot in the NBA Finals.

    For the Cavs’ first-year head coach, David Blatt, who has never coached on any level in the United States, this is pressure with a capital P. And the Cavs are led by the greatest basketball player on the planet, LeBron James. In Cleveland, Blatt is supposed to win.

    But Blatt is no stranger to pressure. Last year at this time, he was getting his Maccabi Tel Aviv team ready for both the highly competitive Israeli Basketball Super League and the tough Euroleague. Blatt’s Maccabi Tel Aviv was far from his best team, and he knew he would have a difficult time competing with Maccabi Haifa for the IBSL title; the Euroleague, with the top teams in Europe, would be equally challenging.

    But Blatt won both championships with what many experts feel was his best coaching job ever. He picked up Coach of the Year awards in both leagues and suddenly found himself, after 20 years, one of the most respected bench bosses in Europe. Then the NBA called, and on June 21, he became head coach of the Cavaliers.

    During the summer, James, who won two NBA titles with the Miami Heat, rejoined his hometown Cleveland Cavs, the team that originally signed him and for which he played from 2003 to 2010. The Cavs quickly added another top-quality star — Kevin Love, in a trade with Minnesota — to complement a trio of standouts — Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson.

    The JT asked respected NBA analysts Reggie Miller and Doug Collins, both former standout players, about Blatt and his chances with LeBron James and the Cavs, who haven’t had a winning season in four years.

    Here is what TNT analyst Miller thinks of Blatt’s Cleveland team:

    “They have a lot of guys who haven’t been in this situation. They brought in Shawn Marion and Mike Miller, who have won championships, to help players like Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love. As great as those players are, they don’t understand the intensity it is going to take for them to win a championship. Obviously, bringing the best player on the planet [James] to your team means your goal is to win a championship. Now, [Blatt has] the best player and two of the best young players — Love and Kyrie Irving. The top half of the Eastern Conference isn’t how it was a few years ago. It’s Chicago and Cleveland that are probably going to be battling for supremacy.”

    What made Blatt a successful head coach in Europe was playing a true team game: no superstars, just ball movement and his five players playing as a team, always getting the ball to the open shooter.

    Collins, an ESPN “NBA Countdown” analyst, is a true professor of the game; he was an NBA head coach in Chicago, Detroit, Washington and Philadelphia. And he understands the complexities of coaching a superstar, having done that with Michael Jordan with the Bulls and Wizards.

    “First of all, I think he’s up to the challenge,” Collins said of Blatt. “He has been a success everywhere. He has had to win with defense, and he has had some dynamic offenses. He’s a guy who knows both sides of the ball.  To just say he’s a terrific offensive mind would be selling him short. To me, it’s going to be managing people. The Heat was the most scrutinized team in the NBA when LeBron was there. Now the Cavs are going to be the most scrutinized team in the NBA. It’s going to be managing the media, dealing with day-to-day [situations] and managing personalities. He has all the Xs and Os; he has all the stuff he needs. But he’s got the greatest sidekick you can have — LeBron.”

    The Cavs play the Washington Wizards on Nov. 21 at the Verizon Center. That game can be seen on ESPN or CSN Mid-Atlantic.

    A Stage Legend’s Final Bow

    The name Vivienne Shub has been synonymous with Baltimore theater for nearly three-quarters of a century. When she passed away at the age of 95 on Sept. 18, Shub left behind her son, Daniel Shub, her daughters, Judith Shub-Condliffe and Amy Shub Rothstein, her younger sister, Naomi Greenberg, as well as grandchildren, cousins, nieces and nephews. But Shub’s passing was also a huge loss to friends, colleagues and audiences in Baltimore and beyond.

    Shub was born to Rose Slovin, a seamstress and homemaker, and dentist Samuel Slovin on Oct. 18, 1918 in Baltimore. Both of her parents were Eastern European immigrants. Shub’s sister, a cellist and Everyman Theatre’s dramaturge, was born when Shub was 4 years old. Although Naomi Greenberg lived in Holland for 30 years, Greenberg says she and her sister shared an unbreakable bond that lasted to the very end of Shub’s life.

    “Vivienne showed a love for acting very early,” Greenberg recalled. “She loved to imitate our grandmother’s Yiddish accent.”

    Greenberg and Shub’s father was also a story teller and poet and encouraged his daughters to pursue their artistic talents.

    Shub studied music at the Peabody Conservatory and performed in the plays at Forest Park High School. She also won roles in community theater productions such as those at Baltimore’s Vagabond Theatre. After high school, Shub enrolled in full-time acting classes at the Ramsey Street Theatre Conservatory in Baltimore.

    Since there was no professional theater scene in Baltimore in those days, as a young woman, Shub decided to try her luck in New York City. But she soon concluded she was not well suited to New York’s fast-paced and cutthroat theater scene. Shub returned to Baltimore and enrolled in a secretarial school, gaining the skills that enabled her to support herself. She continued acting in her free time.

    In 1941, Shub married Louis Shub, a concert pianist, and the couple raised three children together. Daniel, the couple’s second child, said that his parents’ marriage gave him a “distorted view of what marriage was like. They had a great relationship. They were both gentle and encouraging to one another and were very compatible, creatively and politically.”

    His parents met at a political meeting, likely a meeting about the need for desegregation in Baltimore, the son said.

    Almost immediately following their wedding, Louis was required to leave his new bride and report for military service. He was stationed in North Africa and Italy. While he was gone, said their son, his parents wrote to each other every day.

    Photos provided.

    As parents, he added, Vivienne and Louis were exceedingly approachable and always ready to lend an ear or to provide support.

    In 1963, Shub helped to found Center Stage, Baltimore’s first regional professional repertory theater. She acted in Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” the first play produced by the fledgling company, and continued to perform with Center Stage for the next 20 years. In the mid- 1990s, Shub became a company member of Everyman Theatre. She performed with Everyman well into her 80s, said Greenberg, appearing in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Buried Child,” “Uncle Vanya,” “Hedda Gabler” and “The Trip to Bountiful.”

    For her 90th birthday in 2008, Shub performed “Viva la Vivienne,” a one-woman show written by her sister as a tribute to Shub’s life and career. Greenberg also wrote “The Cone Sister,” a one-woman show about the lives of art collector Etta Cone and her sister, Claribel. Shub performed the play at Everyman in 2006.

    Shub’s acting was not limited to the stage.

    “She also did a lot of commercial work,” said Harriet Lynn, Shub’s cousin and an actress and producer/artistic director at the Heritage Theatre Artists’ Consortium.

    Shub appeared in the films “Runaway Bride” and John Water’s “Cry Baby,” television shows “Homicide: Life on the Street,” public television programs and even training films, said Lynn. She also had an illustrious teaching career in the theater department at Towson University, where she was granted an honorary diploma in 2012.

    Lynn said that one of Shub’s greatest contributions to Baltimore’s theater community was the leadership she provided to the Baltimore Theatre Alliance, which she founded in 1996.

    “What she did with BTA was huge,” said Lynn. “Only Vivienne could have done this. She coalesced over 50 theater companies and this large group of individuals of actors [and] designers.”

    Shub spent the last years of her life at Towson’s Edenwald retirement home. In her final days, Greenberg was amazed that her sister could still recite lines of dialogue from plays she had acted in decades earlier. She was amused that her sister enjoyed speaking Yiddish and reminisced about their Yiddish-speaking grandparents.

    Shub received a send-off during a memorial program at Everyman Theatre on Oct. 20. On Nov. 13, the Jewish community will celebrate Shub’s life at a special event at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. The event will feature remarks from her family, friends and colleagues, clips of the actress at work and an exhibition paying tribute to Shub’s remarkable life and 72-year career.

    For additional information, visit jewishmuseummd.org.


    ­Profile in Conscience

    (Photo by Jérôme Prébois)

    (Photo by Jérôme Prébois)

    It is not necessary for every new movie about World War II — and there are a surprising number each year — to reference the Holocaust. Even so, many moviegoers consider the calamities inextricably linked, as do most filmmakers.

    Contemporary audiences have the benefit of hindsight, and as Jews we are particularly attuned to the Third Reich’s crimes against civilians, so we never forget the genocidal campaign happening concurrently with the military operation— even if it’s not the movie’s focus, or isn’t mentioned.

    The Holocaust is alluded to only once in “Diplomacy,” Volker Schlondorff’s  marvelously directed and beautifully acted film about the late-summer night in 1944 when Paris’s fate hung by a thread of conversation. Yet, that passing reference is arguably the crux upon which the high-stakes drama turns.

    Adapted by Cyril Gely from his play and starring the great veteran French actors Niels Arestrup as German Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz and André Dussollier as Swedish consul Raoul Nordling, “Diplomacy” (opening Nov. 14 at the Charles) is at its core an impassioned debate about the prospects for human civilization.

    Gen. Choltitz, you see, has been recently dispatched to Paris with an order from Hitler to destroy the city when the Allies arrive. Choltitz has approved the wiring of explosives that will not only demolish the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, et al but will cause the Seine to flood, killing thousands of residents.

    A loyal, seasoned officer, Choltitz has every intention of carrying out his instructions. It doesn’t matter that no military advantage will ensue from turning one of the world’s great cities to rubble; an order is an order. The logic behind the order is likewise of little interest to him, with revenge (for the bombing of German cities) constituting sufficient grounds.

    Enter Consul Nordling, through a hidden entrance to the general’s hotel headquarters that Choltitz was unaware of, with a nocturnal plea to defy Hitler’s wishes. The impassioned Nordling delivers an array of arguments, all effortlessly rebuffed by Choltitz, but the diplomat does manage to reveal the man behind the uniform.

    Not for the first time in movies (although it is a comparatively recent development), the German officer isn’t depicted as a one-dimensional, sadistic true believer. He is an educated man with a wider worldview, albeit one only arrived at through the devastating realization that the Third Reich had irrevocably crossed serious lines under the influence of Fuehrer worship.

    At one point in their verbal fencing match, Choltitz informs Nordling that early in the war he had unhesitatingly carried out an order to eliminate the Jews in a town on the Eastern Front. It didn’t even occur to him to question Hitler’s directive.

    To Nordling — though he doesn’t say it — and to us, no conceivable justification exists for the targeted murders of a minority. Choltitz, we gather, has reconsidered his behavior during that mass murder as the war ground on and Hitler lost his tenuous grasp on reality.

    The question is whether Choltitz will, yet again, obey an immoral and indefensible order from his once-infallible Fuehrer. His decision depends on whether he has enough character to acknowledge that he willingly participated in (at least) one heinous act.

    Can a supposedly neutral diplomat outwit a general with his finger on the button? Can a Nazi officer rejoin the civilized peoples of the world? Even if you don’t find the latter a compelling conversation starter, and you are well aware that Paris survived the war intact, “Diplomacy” is an expertly made and deeply rewarding profile in conscience.

    Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based film critic and journalist.

    ‘Why We Love Israel’

    Steven Winston Photography

    Steven Winston Photography

    Comedian Benji Lovitt’s job is to make Jewish people around the world laugh.

    Making aliyah in 2006, the 40-year-old Dallas native now finds humor in his homeland. Touring the United States until Nov. 15, he will be entertaining crowds at Jewish community centers, synagogues and Jewish federations. He will be performing at the Suburban Orthodox Torah Congregation in Baltimore on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m.

    “My show reminds us why we love Israel in the first place,” said Lovitt. “If you’ve been to Israel, you will really relate to it. And if you haven’t, you’ll probably want to go by the end of the show. We’ll laugh at Israel, but we’ll also laugh at ourselves as Americans.”

    After going on a Young Judea Year Course, Lovitt knew he wanted to return to Israel. Once he graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, he spent five years working in the hi-tech sector before switching to the Jewish professional world. Working for the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta, Hadassah’s Young Judaea and various Israel programs, Lovitt knew he wanted to make the permanent move.

    “I was living in New York at the time and wasn’t happy,” said Lovitt. “I was crazy about Israel. I grew up in Young Judaea, worked for them and had visited a million times. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life saying ‘what if?’ I knew if I didn’t give it a shot, I’d look back later in life and regret it.”

    He did his first stand-up routine in 1997 but did not become a serious comedian until he moved to Israel. Catering to the English-speaking crowd, his show is tailored around his experiences as an Israeli immigrant.

    “A comedian wants to talk about what he’s most passionate about. My identity is that of an oleh,” an immigrant, he explained. “I couldn’t talk about these things in the States. It’s so much fun putting into words what all of us immigrants are thinking and laughing about all the time.”

    In addition to his comedy, Lovitt is also an accomplished writer and blogger. His work and perspective has been featured in The Jerusalem Post, Ynet, the Jewish Daily Forward and Israel21c, among others. Recently, his Times of Israel blog has experienced a lot of traffic, especially around Yom Ha’atzmaut with his “66 Things I Love About Israel.”

    “I write about life around me. As an outsider (being an immigrant, that is), there is never a shortage of interesting things to discuss and comment on,” said Lovitt.

    So who should see his upcoming show? “Jews, of course!” he exclaimed.

    “Well, my Yom Kippur jokes don’t go over so well in Alabama,” said Lovitt. “[My target audience is people who have been to and love Israel, but also those who are thinking of visiting but just never had an opportunity. The more time you’ve spent here, the harder you’ll laugh.”

    By creating a comedy routine out of his experiences, he is able to connect with Zionists around the world, he said.

    “In a country where East meets West, old meets new, and explicit rap lyrics meet radio stations where American FCC regulations do not apply, there is no shortage of hilarious moments, interactions and opportunities,” said Lovitt. “It is said that throughout our history, the Jews have laughed to keep from crying. Sometimes, you just have to laugh here at the absurdities of life”

    For more information on Lovitt’s show, visit bit.ly/1rvQ1Ne.