The Shoe’s the Thing

Jane Weitzman will speak  at  “One Sole Can Make a Difference,” on Nov. 6 at Temple Oheb Shalom

Jane Weitzman will speak at “One Sole Can Make a Difference,” on Nov. 6 at Temple Oheb Shalom

It’s no secret that many women — and even some men — have been known to lose their heads over gorgeous footwear. Ever wonder what it would be like to be married to a man who makes high-end shoes for a living? When she headlines The Associated Women’s Fall Event, “One Sole Can Make a Difference,” on Nov. 6 at Temple Oheb Shalom, Jane Weitzman, wife of shoe wunderkind Stuart Weitzman, former executive vice president of Stuart Weitzman and former first vice president of Stuart Weitzman retail, will bare her soul, telling us what it’s like to walk a mile in her pumps.

Weitzman’s husband learned the shoe trade in his father Seymour’s shoe factory when he was a boy in Haverville, Mass. He began designing shoes for the company in his 20s, and when his father passed away in 1965, he and his brother took over the business. Stuart Weitzman, a Wharton School of Business graduate, was already in the shoe business by the time he proposed to his future wife, Jane Gershon, almost five decades ago. One might say the proposal was a “shoe-in” since it came in the form of a pair of white-lace shoes with the name “Jane Weitzman” printed inside.

Although the Weitzman brothers sold their company in 1972, Stuart Weitzman continued to design shoes for the new owners. Known for their impeccable attention to detail and the uncommon materials including gold, Lucite, gems and wallpaper that were used to create them, Stuart Weitzman shoes grew in popularity. In 1994, he took back ownership of the company, and soon after, he opened the first Stuart Weitzman retail store on Madison Avenue in New York City.

He put his wife in charge of marketing for the store, and Jane Weitzman broke ground in the retail world when she chose to display the works of art she called “fantasy shoes” in the store’s windows, rather than the wearable shoes sold in the store.

In doing so, she made Stuart Weitzman’s retail stores destinations, not just places to purchase beautiful shoes. The shoes became so popular that beginning in 2002, Weitzman began designing one-of-a-kind pairs for Oscar nominees walking the red carpet.

As she traveled across the country and around the globe, Jane Weitzman sought out fantasy shoes that she found and/or commissioned by artists she encountered in her travels. In fact, she admitted, some of the artists she commissioned were discovered on trips to Baltimore’s American Crafts Council fairs.

After the Weitzmans again sold the company several years ago, she found that people wanted to know what had become of the fantasy shoes that made window shopping at Stuart Weitzman’s stores as fascinating as a trip to an art museum. So Weitzman published a book that included highlights of the fantasy shoe collection. “Art & Sole” includes full-color photos of approximately 150 shoes of the more than 1,000 Jane Weitzman has discovered and commissioned since the opening of the first Stuart Weitzman store.

During an interview prior to her visit to Baltimore, she shed some light on women’s obsession with shoes.

“I think women love shoes, because no matter what, they can change an outfit,” she said. “You can wear a plain dress, but when you put on a beautiful pair of heels, you can dress it up. You can wear a dressy dress, but when you put on flats, you dress it down.”

Though Weitzman wouldn’t say how many pairs of shoes she owns, she admitted that she is partial to the pumps her husband designs.

“I love a plain high-heeled pump,” she revealed. “You can do so much with it. I have them in silver, gold, brown suede, leather.”

Stuart Weitzman makes them in various heel sizes. His wife, who is 5-feet 3-inches tall, likes the 31⁄2 heel height.

“I also love the 5050 boot. They are flat, so they’re comfortable all day long,” she said. This year, the 5050 is being made with quilted leather and black suede.

As far as her “fantasy shoes” go, she can’t say which her favorites are.

“They’re like children,” she said. “I can’t have favorites.”

But it’s not all about fashion for Weitzman. She said she has always known the importance of giving back.

“My parents both helped to rescue Holocaust survivors during World War II,” she explained.

As part of her work with Stuart Weitzman shoes, she was in charge of philanthropy for the company. Spearheading charity events such as the Stuart Weitzman Celebrity Breast Cancer Auction, she is a major supporter of breast and ovarian cancer research and awareness. Weitzman is active in Jewish causes as well, serving on executive committees and boards of UJA Greenwich, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Weitzman is also on the Trust Board of Boston Children’s Hospital and the boards of the Jewish Book Council and the Greenwich JCC. Proceeds from “Art and Sole” benefit Weitzman’s favorite charities.

“I’ve traveled to Jewish communities in 30 countries and I’ve seen it,” she said. “If we don’t help them, no one will.”

For tickets and information about the event, visit

Sharp Shooter

David Thorpe (center) has made a career out of helping NBA players improve their game, including Israelis Gal Mekel (left) and Omri Casspi. Photo Courtesy of David Thorpe

David Thorpe (center) has made a career out of helping NBA players improve their game, including Israelis Gal Mekel (left) and Omri Casspi. Photo Courtesy of David Thorpe

Rodney Glasgow catches a pass, pivots, takes one dribble and lays the ball in the basket.

David Thorpe, Glasgow’s coach and trainer for a couple of weeks this summer, steps in to offer some pointers, instructing the former Virginia Military Institute guard to look up after making the catch and how to keep opponents from stealing the ball.

It’s what Thorpe has been doing for nearly three decades out of his Clearwater, Fla., base: identifying and correcting flaws in a basketball player’s game in preparation for a season and, hopefully, a pro career.

For some of his clients — the NBA roster includes Israelis Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel as well as Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer of the Minnesota Timberwolves — the relationship extends well beyond the court.

Thorpe, Martin said, is “my second father.”

“I get most of my pleasure by the maturing I see among the young men I’m helping, seeing them grow,” Thorpe said. “It nourishes my soul in a way that making a jump shot doesn’t.”

A stream of players flows each summer to Thorpe’s consultancy, Pro Training Center, usually through referrals by their agents or teams.

Mekel, of the Dallas Mavericks, is coming back from a knee injury suffered during his rookie season.

Glasgow has come with an eye toward landing a contract with a European team — which he would do, joining BBC Monthey, based in Switzerland. It’s an achievement he credits Thorpe with having “a major part in.”

“He’s a great teacher and mentor,” Glasgow said. “He has this presence about him that is really outgoing. I could see that this person has high character. He got to know me and was really genuine.”

Thorpe, who also provides basketball analysis on the ESPN-owned website, coached at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg, Fla. — a couple of  hours from his native Seminole — before starting out on his own in 1993.

“I really consider myself a basketball coach who just helps these guys get better,” he said.

After joining Maccabi Haifa two years ago, Mekel was directed to Thorpe by Casspi. Mekel, a guard, would lead the team that season to Israel’s national championship and secure the league’s Most Valuable Player honor.

Shortly after the Sacramento Kings selected Casspi in the 2009 NBA draft — he’s now back with the team — a club official sent him to Florida, wanting Thorpe to help improve the forward’s three-point shooting. Glasgow’s New Jersey-based agent, Justin Haynes, says Thorpe “is the best” at improving a player’s skills and providing “after-care.”Haynes estimates that he’s sent eight players to train with Thorpe. With Glasgow signing in Switzerland, all have gone on to play professionally.

“Every high-level player wants to be trained by a highly skilled trainer,” Haynes said.

In one session, Thorpe corrects a problem with Glasgow’s shot — more precisely with his mechanics.

Thorpe “was telling me certain tricks so I’d have a higher percentage of making the shot,” in so doing “breaking the game down at a pro level [in a way] that I never received” from coaches in college, said Glasgow, a Washington-area resident.

“That right away did it for me. I knew I was in the right hands. It told me his IQ level was so high.”

By their second week together, the new habit was second nature and “I was shooting much better,” Glasgow said.

He also watched Martin and Casspi working out simultaneously, ingesting “every little thing.”

“David would say it and Kevin would show it,” Glasgow said.

Martin, a guard who first trained with Thorpe as an incoming sophomore at Western Carolina University, is now a 10-year NBA veteran — and has returned every summer.

Thorpe immediately broke his tendency to settle for jump shots, stressing the importance of “getting to the hole and drawing contact,” Martin said while vacationing in Hawaii.

“I think he knew my calling card was going to be putting the ball in the basket,” said Martin, who has done just that, possessing a 17.9 points-per-game average in the NBA. “He believed in me and saw the traits I have to be successful.”

Thorpe’s work doesn’t end in the summer. In season, slumping players will contact him. After bad games, too.

“When you need me, when you have a bad game, you have to call me,” Thorpe said he tells them.

Thorpe and his assistant, Ryan Pannone, will review game film to hone in on mechanics and identify solutions.

“I tell the guys, ‘I’m just going to be a mirror, reflecting who you are. I’m not going to say you had a good day when you didn’t,’” Thorpe said.

He stays close to his charges personally, too. Mekel and Martin attended the recent bar mitzvah of Thorpe’s son, Maxwell. Martin said of Thorpe, “With David, I feel the trust and loyalty will always be there.”

The Ultimate Fan

A Baltimore sports fan since the 1960s, Stan Charles has created a media success with PressBox. (Provided)

A Baltimore sports fan since the 1960s, Stan Charles has created a media success with PressBox. (Provided)

Long before there were fan-related sports websites such as Bleacher Report, SB Nation, Rant Sports and Fansided, there was PressBox. For more than 31 years Baltimore sports fans have known and loved Stan “The Fan” Charles, a true Charm City icon. Charles was a local radio personality who also penned a weekly sports column for City Paper, but it was his decision in 2007 to create the PressBox brand that has spawned a mini sports-media empire in Baltimore.

Since 2007, Charm City sports fans have been reading PressBox’s signature monthly print magazine; they follow the daily happenings on its website,, and they watch its weekly television show that airs every Sunday morning on WMAR-TV at 10:30.

The success of PressBox is based on a simple premise: Give local readers every possible storyline about their high schools and colleges. Baltimore is a big city that has a passion for high school sports, and Baltimore is home to more than a dozen sports-playing colleges and universities. PressBox makes sure fans have a place to read about their favorite teams.

Of course, no Baltimore-area sports publication would be complete without extensive coverage of the Orioles and Ravens. Charles and his dedicated staff produce sports content that is fresh, current and compelling 24/7.

While many publications such as the Baltimore Sun have downsized and charge a fee for their online content, Charles and his team has ramped up coverage, making sure that PressBox deliverers more fresh content than any other area website. And it’s free.

JT: Where did you grow up? In Baltimore?  
Stan Charles: Actually, I was born in Washington, D.C., in 1952, and in 1958, my father passed away. My mother wanted to be near her family, and that meant moving to Baltimore. Mom was one of a family of 10, so I had plenty of loving aunts, uncles and cousins to help me learn everything about Baltimore. We lived near Pimlico Race Course and the Rodgers Avenue Synagogue, where I had my bar mitzvah. My passion for sports and for Baltimore grew from that amazingly loving community, around the Rodgers Avenue Synagogue.

PressBox debuted in 2007 and puts a huge emphasis on local and high school sports. (Provided)

PressBox debuted in 2007 and puts a huge emphasis on local and high school sports. (Provided)

Growing up in the old neighborhood, attending Arlington Elementary, Pimlico Junior High and Northwestern gave me a wonderful foundation, and it taught me a great life lesson on how important family and a supportive Jewish community are. Also, how relationships you develop as a kid can — if you are lucky — last you a lifetime. Throughout my career, the Jewish community of Baltimore has supported me, and it continues to do so, well over 30 years after I began my work in sports.

When did you become a sports fan?
As with most kids growing up in Baltimore in the 1960s, I listened to all the Orioles and Colts games on my transistor radio. It was the golden age of Baltimore sports with Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, and Gino Marchetti among the many great Colts players. Then you had the Orioles with Frank and Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell, along with the outstanding pitching of Jim Palmer, Mike Flannigan and Dave McNally. There are really too many outstanding players on both teams to name, but we loved following both teams every game. Most of the time it was listening on the radio or watching on TV. But things were always the best on those special days when my brother, cousins and uncle would go to Memorial Stadium. Those are the memories that will stay with me forever, and that is what makes sports so special.

When did you know you wanted to be involved in sports as a profession?
I remembered listening to Benny the Fan, who used to have a radio sports show in the 1960s. He knew his stuff and was very entertaining, and it was Benny and another Baltimore radio personality, Charley Eckman, who really got me interested in sports broadcasting. I got my start on radio in 1981 at WFBR, and I knew that was what I wanted to do. There is something about the interaction with the fans, the players and the people in power that seems to always make for a great story. At the same time I was honing my craft learning everything I could as a broadcaster. I also wrote a weekly column for City Paper called “A Fan’s Notes,” So my career as a sports broadcaster and as a columnist began to take shape and flourish.

What is next for PressBox?
We continue to grow and expand the brand as best we can. We are now an affiliate of Monumental Networks, and we launched our new website this year. We not only cover Baltimore, but we have also taken on covering sports in the nation’s capital. We have a Washington-based staff for the new website. My partner, John Coulson, and I both feel very strongly that the way we cover events and the people involved in sports in Baltimore will translate well in Washington. At a time when newspapers are reducing staff or going to an online pay service, we want to keep our sports content fresh, up to date, local and free. It has been a recipe that has served us well for the past seven years, so we will stay true to our brand, as we grow in this ever-changing media world.

Jim Williams is a local freelance writer.

Living in a Dystopian Future


Design director Naomi Davidoff’s costume sketches.

An ambitious show calls for ambitious materials: LED lights, wigs, foam armor, bicycle tubes, belly-dancing outfits and telescoping wooden columns.

There were no creative limitations in creating a futuristic sci-fi world, where electricity is currency and an oppressive pharaoh keeps the people deeply divided into two classes — the upper-class “luxies” and the lower-class “dimmers.”

It’s the space-age setting for “Electric Pharaoh,” the sixth original production from the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, or the BROS, as members and devotees affectionately call the organization. The show premieres tonight and runs through Oct. 26 in Baltimore.

It follows the story of a boy named Chenzira, who is searching for thesecrets of the pyramids and learning how to harness his own ability to generate electricity. “What he will find could change his life and rescue humanity from a futuristic dark age,” the BROS website says.


‘Electric Pharoah’ creator Chuck Green shows off an LED-lit pharoah helmet, which will be controlled wirelessly.

On a recent Monday night in Baltimore, volunteers — everyone involved in the production is a volunteer — were building pieces of the set and working on costumes in an old warehouse in north Baltimore called the Bell Foundry, which serves as BROS headquarters. Chuck Green, who came up with the concept of the show and helped write the script, was wiring panels of LED lights to a pharaoh helmet.

Volunteer coordinator Miriam Cummons was putting the finishing touches on some wigs with fellow volunteer Heather Graham. Some were cutting and painting foam armor, which would also be wired with LED lights, while others were building parts of the set. Design director Naomi Davidoff showed off some of her costume sketches and finished costumes, some of which had LED lights sewn into the seams.

“It’s going to be kind of crazy, and all of this is wirelessly controlled,” said Davidoff. “I have no idea how it all works.”

“Electric Pharaoh” costumes will feature 15 sets of LED lights that will be wirelessly controlled and, for parts of the show, synched with the music and video projections that are mapped to different parts of the stage.

“There are programmers involved, people that are really highly technically involved — typically, those people are kind of hard to find,” said Mason Ross, the show’s director. “Not to mention to have so many wireless elements talking to each other and triggering each other. To be honest, you don’t even see that that often in professional theater.”

The BROS, the brainchild of four Goucher College graduates and a common friend, who founder Aran Keating said were “mythologizing their own lives in the most ridiculous ways,” started in 2009 with heavy metal musical “Gründlehämmer.” It has since morphed into a force to be reckoned with, boasting sold-out original productions, appearances at Artscape and other street festivals and self-branded annual parties.

Miriam Cummons adds finishing touches to a headpiece.

Miriam Cummons adds finishing touches to a headpiece.
(Photos by Marc Shapiro)

“After ‘Gründlehämmer’ we kind of sat down and realized that we sold out three nights of this show and it probably wasn’t a fluke that we’d come together and rallied this community of people, and really built this community of people around the show,” Dylan Koehler, one of the founders, said. “We’re all here to make something really awesome that’s greater than the sum of its parts.”

For a do-it-yourself theater, the BROS is rich with resources and enthusiasm. Ross, who has been involved in Baltimore’s DIY theater community for about 10 years, said directing the show is “a lot of making sure that all of the tentacles of this many-armed beast know what’s going on.” Between the cast, band, lighting, sound, sets, props, costumes, multimedia and other departments, there are more than 100 volunteers working on the show.

“Every show is another way to just be even more ridiculous and awesome, and they do take the camaraderie and the spirit of the company seriously,” Cummons said. “It makes the community really inclusive because they’re always looking for new kind of talent. They’re looking for people who breathe fire or use a loom. It’s any crazy combination of stuff.”

And the talented came out, in large numbers. Both Ross and Erica Patoka, the vocal director, assistant music director and one of the band’s keyboardists, said they had no trouble filling out the cast and band with top-notch performers. It was the first time the BROS held band auditions, which brought in a pool of professional musicians ready to tackle the show’s multi-genre score.

“It’s like the marriage of the best of 1990s electronica from Europe to here, merged with like a smidgen of industrial music, merged with the best of true rock from the 1960s to now,” Patoka said. “If you can’t imagine it, you should see the show.”

Jon Caplan, one of the band’s two guitarists, hadn’t played a BROS production in a few years. He thought with auditions being held, he’d get
a chance to play in some kind of Baltimore all-star band, and he has not been disappointed.

“It’s, like, amazing,” he said, recalling painstakingly long rehearsals for some earlier shows. “I think we could all make the claim to be professional musicians in our personal lives, so we all came in prepared.”

Patoka, who speaks proudly about flunking out of Peabody Conservatory twice — once for piano and once for flute, co-wrote much of the music for “Electric Pharaoh.” And although it was a labor-intensive process, Patoka never regrets spending her evenings outside of work with the BROS.

“The people at my job think I’m nuts. I’m a nurse practitioner by day, or as my mother would say, ‘almost a doctor,’ so that’s my day job — very busy, very crazy, saving lives, whatever,” she said, “and then I get here, and it’s that Jekyll/Hyde existence, I think, that keeps us alive.”

So the BROS have a top-notch band, video projections and LED-lit costumes, but does the depth of story match the intensity of the production? Ross seems to think so.

“I think the job of science fiction is to ask what other moral complications and questions we would have to ask ourselves, given certain advances in technology and society,” he said. “I think that the script does that.”

After the show’s Baltimore run, the BROS hits the road to take the production to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

“Everyone’s going to have a party mom, which is going to be like a team captain, to do headcounts and stuff,” said Cummons, who is charged with figuring out how to house and transport about 100 people for the tours. “Everyone is smart, ready to have a good time in safe way.”

“Electric Pharaoh” runs through Oct. 26 at Lithuanian Hall, 851 Hollins St., Baltimore. Tickets range from $20 to $40 and can be purchased at

An ‘Oy Vey’ Journey of Self-Discovery

101714_filmEstella Fish is Puerto Rican, and she clasps a rosary while fretting about her directionless youngest daughter, Alexis. Yet, she sounds like a typical Jewish mother concerned about an underachieving adult child.

It may have something to do with the fact that Estella’s husband is Jewish, although he’s easygoing and soft-spoken rather than schticky. The truth, though, is she embodies the universal instincts of mothers everywhere and reminds viewers of their own mom.

New York writer-director Nicole Gomez Fisher modeled Estella on her own mother for the altogether winning indie comedy “Sleeping With the Fishes.” For her first screenplay, Fisher followed the age-old advice to write what you know.

“The characters are all loosely based on my family,” she confided. “The actual story itself is a mix of fiction and truth. It is based on my upbringing of being a Puerto Rican Jew, my mother being Puerto Rican and when she met my father made the choice to convert to Judaism. So we were raised Jewish, and, for the most part, we went to Sunday school and Hebrew school.”

“Sleeping With the Fishes” presents a colorblind New York in which young people pay no attention to ethnicity, race and religion. Fisher’s childhood was a lot more complicated, however.

“It was a weird upbringing in the sense that my sister and I tended not to be accepted by kids in Hebrew school,” she recalled. “They would say things like, ‘You know you’re technically not a Jew,’ or ‘You don’t celebrate this [holiday],’ or ‘You’re not kosher.’ They put labels on us and made us feel very excluded.”

“Sleeping With the Fishes” premiered last year at the Brooklyn Film Festival. It’s airing numerous times in October and November on various HBO networks, and it comes out Oct. 21 on DVD.

As the film begins, Alexis (appealingly played by Gina Rodriguez) is living in Los Angeles and working humiliating jobs in a futile attempt to make ends meet. She’s summoned back to New York — her more responsible sister Kayla (an acerbic Ana Ortiz) advances the airfare — for the funeral of a random relative. Moving back in with her parents, Alexis naturally chafes against their concerned (and loving) interest.

The plot kicks into another gear when Alexis and Kayla are hired to produce a bat mitzvah party on one week’s notice with a tiny budget. Propelled by the sisters’ spiky banter and further enlivened by the droll introduction of a potential romantic partner, “Sleeping With the Fishes” is a warm-hearted and deeply pleasurable saga of a resourceful 20-something’s navigation past various bumps in the road.

“I didn’t want this to be a Jewish and/or a Latino film,” said Fisher, who spent four years in Los Angeles doing standup comedy. “For me, it was really more about the mother-daughter relationship than anything else because I tried so hard not to identify myself as one or the other — but just as Nicole — because it was so cloudy growing up and trying to figure out where I fit in.”

A turning point was the film’s West Coast premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in the summer of 2013.

“I was very nervous,” Fisher said, “not only because it was the first Jewish forum, but the demographic of the audience was easily 50-plus-plus-plus-plus-plus. I’ve never seen more walkers and scooters in my life. And it was 500 people, too. I’d gone from the Brooklyn Film Festival, where it was 200 mostly family and friends so I felt a little safe, into a whole different world for me, and it was probably in our top three best responses ever.”

Fisher laughs at herself and elaborates on the happy misperception she had of her own work.

“When I wrote this film, I could have sworn that my demographic was going to be young, possibly more Latino than Jewish,” Fisher said. “I have to tell you, with all the screenings we’ve had, definitely I was wrong. It appeals to a much older crowd. A lot of people seem to enjoy the quality of the humor because it’s not like I’m just dashing off stereotypes. I’m speaking from a voice of my own personal experience.”

The response to “Sleeping With the Fishes” is especially gratifying to Fisher given her concern with depicting her family onscreen.

“The process of writing something so close to home, and with characters that are literally your family, was stifling for me,” she admitted. “I was so afraid of insulting or offending or hurting feelings on any level or portraying my mother to be super evil.”

Fisher laughs when her interviewer suggests she didn’t attend the Joan Rivers school of comedy, in which anything — especially family — is fair game and feelings don’t matter.

“I would love to get to that point in my comedy,” she said. “For a first script, I was overly cautious. I felt the need to protect my family, not even knowing it would get to this point with HBO. So now I’m really, really nervous.”

Not so nervous, though, to refrain from telling a childhood anecdote that provokes a chuckle at her mother’s expense.

“We did try doing seders,” Fisher said. “It just didn’t work out. My mom would always cook Puerto Rican food.”

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

Nazi Spy? Not Hardly


Paul and Hedy Strnad were rejected in their efforts to seek safe haven in the United States on the eve of the Holocaust.
(Photos courtesy of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee)

WASHINGTON — Was the Jewish “lady tailor” who ran a Prague dressmaking shop a potential Nazi spy? The Roosevelt administration apparently thought so.

The Jewish Museum Milwaukee recently opened a remarkable exhibit about the late Hedy Strnad, a Jewish-Czech dressmaker, who, with her husband, Paul, attempted to immigrate to the United States on the eve of the Holocaust.

The exhibit has its roots in a December 1939 letter sent by Paul to his cousins in Milwaukee asking them to help seek permission for him and his wife to come to America. Paul enclosed eight of Hedy’s clothing design sketches. He knew the U.S. authorities would turn away refugees who might have trouble finding employment; Hedy’s sketches demonstrated her professional skills.

Testimony submitted to YadVashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, by the Strnads’ niece, Brigitte Rohaczek, provided the Milwaukee exhibit designers with additional information. She shared poignant memories of her vivacious Aunt Hedy — her real name was Hedwig — and the dressmaking shop she owned and operated in Prague. Hedy — a “lady tailor,” as Rohaczek described her — sometimes had her seamstresses sew clothes for Rohaczek’s dolls.

The directors of the Milwaukee museum came up with an innovative way to remember the Strnads: enlisting the costume makers from the Milwaukee Repertory Theater to create clothing based on Hedy’s sketches.


One of Hedy Strnad’s designs in the exhibit “Stitching History from the Holocaust.”

The resulting exhibit, “Stitching History from the Holocaust,” is a powerful and moving way to introduce an individual, personal dimension to Holocaust remembrance. It features eight outfits — among them fitted blouses and blazers, paired with A-line skirts, and knee-length dresses that cinched at the waist.

Why were the Strnads denied admission to the United States? America’s immigration laws at the time made it difficult for refugees such as the Strnads to enter, and the way the Roosevelt administration implemented those laws made it even harder.

Franklin Roosevelt’s State Department piled on extra requirements and bureaucratic obstacles. In an internal memo in 1940, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long sketched out his department’s policy to “delay and effectively stop” refugee immigration by putting “every obstacle in the way,” such as requiring additional documents and resorting to “various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”

The annual quota of immigrants from Czechoslovakia was small — just 2,874 — but even that quota was not filled in any year during FDR’s 12 years in office.

In 1940, the year the Strnads wanted to immigrate, the Czech quota was only 68 percent filled; nearly 1,000 quota places sat unused. Even though there was room in the quota, and even though Hedy was a successful businesswoman and the couple had relatives in the United States, the Strnads’ applications were turned down.

At the same time the Strnads were seeking a haven, refugee advocates were trying to convince the Roosevelt administration to permit European Jews to settle in areas that were at the time U.S. territories but not states, such as the Virgin Islands and Alaska.

After Kristallnacht in November 1938, the governor and legislative assembly of the Virgin Islands offered to open its doors to Jewish refugees, but Roosevelt personally blocked the proposal.

In public and private statements, FDR claimed that Nazi spies might sneak into America disguised as refugees. U.S. officials imagined that if spies reached the Virgin Islands, it would put them within easy reach of the mainland United States. (No Nazi spies were ever discovered among the few Jewish refugees who were let into the country.)

As for proposals to settle Jews in Alaska, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes Jr. noted in his diary that Roosevelt sa­id he would support the plan only if no more than 10 percent of the settlers were Jews — so as “to avoid the undoubted criticism that we would be subjected to if there were an undue proportion of Jews,” FDR explained.

Shortly after, the administration pushed through legislation that made it even more difficult for Jewish refugees to qualify for U.S. visas. The “close relatives” edict, as it was called, barred the entry of anyone who had close relatives in Europe. The theory was that the Nazis might take their relatives hostage in order to force them to become spies for Hitler. An interesting theory, but there was no evidence to substantiate it.

With all doors shut, the fate of Paul and Hedy — and countless other Jewish refugees — was sealed. They were sent first to the Terezin concentration camp, an hour north of Prague. Then they were deported to the Warsaw Ghetto.

What exactly happened next is unclear. They may have been murdered in Warsaw, or they may have been deported, along with the other Jews of Warsaw, to the Treblinka death camp and perished there.

The “Stitching History” exhibit, open through Feb. 28, is a fitting tribute to a life taken too soon. It is also a sad reminder of a time when the U.S. government regarded Jewish refugees — even a lady tailor from Prague — as a danger.

Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

Renovations Coming to Merriweather

Merriweather Post Pavilion has hosted Led Zeppelin, The Black Keys, Jimi Hendrix and Jack Johnson, as well as a variety of music festivals since its opening in 1967. (Photos Provided)

Merriweather Post Pavilion has hosted Led Zeppelin, The Black Keys, Jimi Hendrix and Jack Johnson, as well as a variety of music festivals since its opening in 1967.
(Photo Provided)

Two words come up in conversation consistently when discussing concert amphitheater Merriweather Post Pavilion: unique and iconic.

Nestled in the woods of Columbia, Merriweather is considered the Holy Grail of Maryland concert venues by fans, artists and agents alike. It’s large enough to host acts such as Jack White, Jack Johnson, The Flaming Lips and Bob Dylan, but small enough to still feel somewhat intimate, with most concerts capping at about 18,000 attendees. With its sloping lawn, rustic atmosphere and world-class sound, it was ranked the fourth-best amphitheater in the country by Rolling Stone magazine last year.

Seth Hurwitz, chairman of I.M.P., which operates Merriweather and the 9:30 Club and produces concerts at several other Baltimore-Washington, D.C.-area venues, can list a number of factors that set the venue apart from others, but at the end of the day, what makes it unique is still intangible.

“It’s probably a good thing that there’s no formula or way to describe it,” Hurwitz said.

In June, Hurwitz, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and musician Jack Johnson unveiled a $19 million renovation plan for the venue, which will take place during the next five off-seasons. The renovations include new seating, a raised main roof, new restrooms and concessions, new artist dressing rooms, a new stage and environmental improvements.

“I knew the next important step was to make sure there was some reinvestment into the venue to keep the character of the venue, but bring 21st-century amenities into the venue,” said Ulman, who was part of an effort to save Merriweather after its previous owners threatened to close it in 2003.

The challenge is updating the building in a way that maintains its character and history. Merriweather stands out from the venues built during the “gold rush of amphitheaters,” Hurwitz said, which tend to be uniform in look and were “designed to maximize the number of people and how much beer you can sell in a short time” without any attention to aesthetics.

“Merriweather was different and needs to stay different, so you don’t want to do anything that looks like anyone else,” Hurwitz said of the upcoming renovations. “There were a lot of cookie-cutter concrete-and-steel places built, and we are the antithesis of that, and we need to remain so.”

Merriweather Post Pavilion was built in 1967, and was named after philanthropist, socialite and Post Foods heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. In the venue’s early days, it hosted legends Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead and a concert that featured both Led Zeppelin and The Who. It was designed by architect Frank Gehry, who is known for his unorthodox projects.

These days, the venue hosts a number of unique festivals: Sweetlife, which featured Lana Del Ray, Foster the People and more this summer; the Virgin Mobile FreeFest, which did not occur in 2014; the Mad Decent Block Party, an electronic music festival; and the Capital Jazz Festival, which brings top jazz acts to the venue each summer.

Merriweather remains a destination for touring artists, said WME agent Seth Seigle, whose agency has booked Gary Clark Jr., Trombone Shorty, Eric Church, John Legend and a plethora of multi-genre artists at the venue in recent years.

“Merriweather has become a place we want to see on our tours, and it’s something many artists aspire to,” Seigle said. “I think our work says it all because you have options, and we like competition and the idea of differentiation, but historically, our clients go back there.”

Many of those aspiring artists start out at I.M.P. venue the 9:30 Club in Washington and later go on to play Merriweather. To commemorate artists who took such a path, the 9:32 Club, a bar at Merriweather, now features an exhibit with side-by-side displays of show posters from artists who played the 9:30 Club and then Merriweather. It even features a needlepoint creation by an I.M.P. employee.

“That’s just an example of something you wouldn’t see at the steel-and-concrete places. They wouldn’t have the history,” said Audrey Schaefer, I.M.P. spokeswoman. “It’s really about connecting in the beginning, and that feeling of a honeymoon continues.”

Merriweather has also expanded its food offerings through a kitchen expansion, added a music pinball arcade and tripled bathroom facilities in recent years. But it is other changes that have kept at least one musician coming back to perform.

Singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, who works to make his tours and shows environmentally friendly, has encouraged and applauded such measures Merriweather has made over the years as the installation of solar panels that power the house lights, composting and building new structures according to LEED (leadership in energy and environmental design) standards.

Merriweather’s greening efforts will be further enhanced by the renovations, which include capturing all storm water runoff for irrigation use, expanding solar capacity 12-fold, replacing all lighting with LED lights and rebuilding restrooms and concessions to meet high-efficiency standards.

The Howard County Council is providing a loan of $9.5 million for the renovations, and the Howard Hughes Corporation, which owns Merriweather, will provide the other $9.5 million. When the renovations are finished, Howard Hughes will pass off ownership of the venue to the nonprofit Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission.

The developer is in the planning and design phases, trying to figure out the best way to get the renovations done in the projected time, said Greg Fitchitt, vice president of development at the Howard Hughes Corporation.

Fitchitt said the company has Merriweather’s “iconic brand” in mind as it nears the beginning of construction.

“It’s got a great, funky, rustic, agricultural feel to it,” he said. “Preserving that is really important to us.”

The Merriweather renovations are at the center of greater development in downtown Columbia. Howard Hughes plans to eventually build 13 million square feet of new development, but is currently in planning discussions with the county over about 4.9 million square feet that would include residential, office, retail, civic and cultural space as well as a 250-room hotel.

“We want Merriweather to be more woven into the fabric of the Columbia Town Center and waterfront,” said Ulman, who is running for lieutenant governor on Anthony Brown’s ticket. “There’s a lot of exciting things happening at Town Center, and Merriweather really is at the heart of the entire master planning around creating a special place where folks will want to live, want to work and shop and go there for entertainment.”


“Mumbojumbo” by Astral Eyes (Photo by Dan Meyers)

“Mumbojumbo” by Astral Eyes
(Photo by Dan Meyers)

Ever wonder where great ideas — truly inspired ideas that transport and transform the people who have them and their worlds — come from? Great ideas and the unusual visionaries who dream them up are the subject of a new exhibition that opened Oct. 4 at the American Visionary Art Museum.

Described by AVAM’s founder and director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger as a show about life’s “Aha!” and “Eureka!” moments, “The Visionary Experience, Saint Francis to Finster,” includes the work of self-taught artists, inventors, architects, scientists, saints and spiritual leaders of different races, ethnicities, socioeconomic levels and faith traditions who all share the experience of being struck by “some lightning bolt of greater understanding, insight, grace and muse” that inspired their uncommon and majestic creations.

The exhibition, curated by Hoffberger with filmmaker and publisher Jodi Wille, also explores why some human beings are blessed with supernatural capacities for insight and understanding, unusual powers of intuition and the ability to access a degree of spiritual connectedness that for most people remains out of reach.

A tour of “The Visionary Experience” begins before one crosses the threshold of the museum. The building itself, adorned with a 1,920-square-foot mirror-and-glass mosaic, is a work of art designed and installed with the help of at-risk and incarcerated youth trained by community artists. The project began in 2000, and its third phase, supervised by artist Mari Gardner, was completed just in time for the exhibition opening.

Hoffberger said the museum campus, which also includes two sculpture plazas, a wildflower garden, the Leroy E. Hoffberger Speaker’s Corner, the LOVE Sculpture Barn, and an outdoor movie theater, was conceived as a place that should always be open to the public.

“If you come at 3 a.m., you can still hug an egg,” she said, referring to Andrew Logan’s “Cosmic Galaxy Egg” installed outside. As part of the new exhibition, visitors who arrive after closing time can also see visionary artist and classic car collector Steve Heller’s “Stargate,” made entirely of automobile parts.

“Feminine Risin” by Ingo Swann (Photo by Dan Meyers)

“Feminine Rising” by Ingo Swann
(Photo by Dan Meyers)

Upon entering the museum, visitors will see local artist, author, radio host, political activist and one of America’s foremost symbolic muralists, Robert Richard Hieronimus’ painting, “Historic Views of Baltimore, 1752-1858,” a 24-by-4-foot, three-paneled panoramic view of the Baltimore Harbor. The work explores what inspired the founding fathers to conceive of their new country.

The exhibit also focuses on the phenomena of near-death and out-of-body experiences.

“Close encounters with death are often life-changing experiences, common to visionaries,” noted Hoffberger. For example, “Visionary Experience” artist Jason Padgett became a gifted mathematician, physicist and illustrator after a mugging in which he was repeatedly kicked in the head. Artist Maja D’Aoust had her first supernatural experience when she was extremely ill as a 2-year-old, and painter Norbert Kox had his life-changing spiritual awakening after a drug overdose.

The Rev. Howard Finster, a Baptist minister and jack of all trades, was born in Alabama in 1915 (or 1916.) Recognized as America’s most prolific artist, Finster is said to have experienced his first vision at the age of 3, when he saw his late sister, Abbie Rose, descend a staircase from the heavens. She said, “Howard, you’re going to be a man of visions.”

“The Visionary Experience,” said Hoffberger, is dedicated to the centennial celebration of Finster’s birth.

Although his visions began early in life, Finster did not begin painting until age 60, when he heard God speak to him. Before his death in 2001, Finster created 46,000 numbered works; was the creator of Paradise Garden, a folk art sculpture garden in Georgia; illustrated album covers for rock groups REM and Talking Heads and even appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.

Astral Eyes, born James Weigel, whose piece “Mumbojumbo” appears in the show, heard voices and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was fortunate to be homeschooled by his mother, who also heard voices and was able to provide guidance for her son as he learned to manage, and to flourish artistically, despite (or possibly because of) his psychiatric symptoms. Born in 1976, Astral Eyes has enjoyed a successful career as an artist of record album covers and as a clothing designer.

Several paintings by visionary artist and psychic Ingo Swann, a “pioneer in the field of remote viewing” and co-creator of Stanford Research Institute of Remote Viewing and the CIA Stargate Project, is also on display. Swann said his first out-of-body experience occurred during a tonsillectomy at age 3. His work has been shown in the Pan Am Building in New York City and is on permanent display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The stories of these artists raise one of the exhibition’s most interesting questions: Are some visionaries mentally ill, or are they instead just more in touch with alternate states of consciousness? The curators conclude that there are no boundaries to what the mind can access, if the thinker is receptive.

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A Happy Holiday

Making the holiday  cooking experience even more fun, Ilene Spector and her grandson made this memorable — and tasty — edible sukkah. (David Stuck)

Making the holiday cooking experience even more fun, Ilene Spector and her grandson made this memorable — and tasty — edible sukkah. (David Stuck)

Sukkot celebrates the joy of the late summer harvest and is often thought of as the Jewish Thanksgiving. However, at this holiday, where we eat is as meaningful as what we eat.

Through the sukkahs we simulate the experience of the Exodus from Egypt. Traveling to the Promised Land for 40 years through the desert, the fleeing children of Israel created temporary housing or huts. By living in these temporary sukkahs, we get a sense of our dependence on nature — and our inter-dependence of family, friends and neighbors.

One of the rituals performed each day in the sukkah is holding four species of vegetation in one’s hands and lifting them in six directions: east, west, north, south, up and down. This reflects our belief that God is everywhere, and there is no place that God is not present.

Eating in the sukkah is the essence of the holiday. Even the composition of food holds metaphors. For example, “stuffed” recipes (such as cabbage, eggplants and tomatoes) remind us of being surrounded in a cozy dwelling. Decorate your table with pomegranates and bottles of wine. I even made a small edible sukkah with my grandson. A cornucopia should overflow with fruits, vegetables, nut and candies. Your sukkah should always be ready for guests.

Get out your Crock-Pot(s) for hearty soups and cholent. Some people decorate sukkahs quite elaborately. Yes, I have seen chandeliers. But there are other more simple options, such as using children’s drawings and photos of Israel. This is a happy holiday ending with Simchat Torah, marking the end of the Torah reading and the beginning — the circle of life. Here are some recipes to add delicious tastes and smells to your sukkah.


Rolled Stuffed Eggplant

Scalloped Tomatoes

Light Sweet Potatoes With Apples


Tips & Tricks
• Spruce up wilted vegetables with a “splash” of plain vinegar.
• Royal icing: 1 egg white and 1 to 2 cups sifted 10X sugar. Beat on high to a “glue” consistency.
• Use a lot of fresh aromatic herbs, such as fresh rosemary and basil, to scent your sukkah table.

Ilene Spector is a local freelance writer.

Room to Rent

Neighbors construct a sukkah in Ramat Hakovesh, Israel.

Neighbors construct a sukkah in Ramat Hakovesh, Israel.

Many observant Jews own a sukkah that they put up every year for the weeklong fall holiday of Sukkot. But renting the temporary structure is a lesser-known option than owning.

The sukkah-rental business is a relatively new space in which the Litton family of Lawrence, N.Y., is a pioneer.

“We were the first ones to rent sukkahs,” said Evan Litton, father of Steven and Jonathan Litton, who run the 15-year-old family business called Build My Sukkah. “We were the innovators in that field. There is a small niche market. Whether it is a real trend or not, I’m not sure, but for us, there is small growth every year.”

Renting a sukkah “is for people who don’t have the space to store the sukkah, and for people that are going away from year to year,” Litton explained.

“For example, they are renting a house because they are traveling or vacationing in Miami or Israel,” he said. “Then they don’t have the problems of putting the sukkah up, taking it down and storing it. Renting alleviates those kinds of problems.”

Some might see renting a sukkah as an option for those looking to go camping during the holiday, but Litton sees no convergence in that regard.

“No, [renting a sukkah] is mainly for people that own or rent a house, and they either want to put a smaller sukkah or a larger sukkah up,” he said. “They may have a large oversized sukkah and this year they want to put up a smaller one. Or, they have a small sukkah and this year they want a larger sukkah because they are having family and friends join them for the holiday. People that go on vacation usually go to a hotel that has a sukkah. Not many people go on a camping vacation using a sukkah.”

Evan helps Steven and Jonathan with the family business, but credits its success to his sons’ ambition and drive.

“I was at work when they were younger and they put up my sukkahs,” Litton said. “Their uncle asked them to put up his sukkah and they started to do it for family members. Eventually they helped their neighbors and expanded it into a business.”

The Litton brothers’ rental sukkahs differ from others on the market because they are “custom sukkahs that we manufacture here in the United States,” Evan explained.

“Most people who rent sukkahs use ones that are manufactured in China and the Orient,” he said. “Many of our customers rent our sukkah and then decide to purchase it because they see the difference in quality.”

The Litton brothers offer rentals, sukkah construction and repairs, and custom sukkahs, as well as lighting, tables and chairs for the temporary structures. The average rental price starts at $275. Renting a large sukkah (10-by-16 feet) costs $550.

“We have expandable sukkahs,” Litton said. “If a customer wants five panels one year, and another five the next, they have the option to expand. The canvas that the large sukkahs are made with has a warranty for five years. The same canvas is used for outdoor furniture. At other places, if you buy an 8-by-12 sukkah, you’re struck with that size because it wraps around as one canvas. Here, it’s paneled canvas, which no other company has. You can expand or contract according to what you need.”

Rabbi Avi Parsons, a teacher at the David Posnack Jewish Day School in Davie, Fla., also runs a sukkah-rental business. He said rentals are more common in Florida than they are elsewhere.

“Renting is more of a trend in Florida, because more and more people are coming down here to enjoy the holiday and they are not sure where they’ll be next year, so they don’t want to own the sukkah,” said Parsons, who is also a salesperson for the New York-based company Leiters Sukkah. “For these folks, renting is easier.”

Parsons’s sukkah rentals are available in the price range of $400 to $700. He said the benefit of renting is that customers do not have to put up or take down their sukkah.

“I also supply them with everything they need, including lights and chairs, so they just come in and use it and I take it out after the holiday,” said Parsons. “It’s cheaper if they do it this way instead of ownership, where you have to take care of [those extra aspects].”

Like Litton, Parsons does not see any common ground between sukkah rentals and camping, but he does offer a “traveling sukkah.”

“Some of the sukkahs I rent have 10-foot poles, which are difficult to travel with,” he said. “[But] the traveling sukkahs are small and inexpensive. Ö Customers use them on trips.”

Eating in the temporary structures during the harvest festival of Sukkot serves as a reminder of the booths the ancient Israelites were said to have dwelled in during their 40 years of traveling in the Sinai desert.

“The sukkah is also a powerful reminder of the many reasons for which we feel grateful to God, not the least of which is for the other 51 weeks of the year most of us are blessed to have solid roofs over our heads, clothes to wear and food to fill our bellies,” said Rabbi Elias Lieberman, leader of the Falmouth Jewish Congregation in Massachusetts.

Said Parsons: “It’s a celebration of the harvest, but also remembering the protection God gave us. We all need protection constantly. It is remembering, but also asking for more protection for the future.”