One-on-One with Jon Lovitz

Jon Lovitz (Provided)

Jon Lovitz (Provided)

“Yeah! That’s the ticket!”

Former “Saturday Night Live” star and Emmy-nominated actor Jon Lovitz is coming to Baltimore for two nights only. Headlining at the Baltimore Comedy Factory for four performances on Friday and Saturday, Lovitz says he’s prepared his best material for the Baltimore crowd.

“I’m lucky because I’ve gotten to see the whole country touring my stand-up act,” said Lovitz. “I don’t change my show at all. I like to keep refining it and making it better.”

Performing as a regular on NBC sketch comedy show SNL from 1985 to 1990, Lovitz impersonated Harvey Fierstein and Michael Dukakis and created many classic characters such as Tommy Flanagan the Pathological Liar, Annoying Man, Master Thespian, Tonto, Mephistopheles and, of course, every Jewish kid’s favorite, Chanukah Harry.

Since SNL, Lovitz has appeared in numerous movies, television series and Broadway shows, including “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “City Slickers 2,” “Big,” “A League of Their Own,” “Eight Crazy Nights,” “The Dinner Party,” “Brave Little Toaster” and “High School High.”

“I’ve had a great career, but I have to say my two favorite movie roles were ‘City Slickers 2’ and ‘A League of Their Own,’” said Lovitz.

As a strong pro-Israel activist, Lovitz has spoken up for Israel through social media. Using his Twitter account to blast pro-Israel tweets, some of his most popular posts include, “Israel has every right to defend itself” and “If you don’t want a fight with Israel, don’t pick one.”

“First of all, I’m Jewish, so naturally, I’m biased,” he said. “But Israel is a democracy, and they’re defending themselves against terrorists. I don’t know how any American can be against Israel.”

Lovitz believes he can personally help out Israel by showing the country that it has America’s assistance.

“I think it helps the psyche of the Israeli people, in some small way, to know there are Americans who support them and aren’t afraid to say so,” he said.

So what’s next for Lovitz? Currently, he is working on a new comedy expected to come out in 2015.

“I’m doing a comedy with David Hasselhoff and Ken Jeong from ‘The Hangover’ called ‘Celebrity Death Pool.’ And I have to say, I think it is the funniest movie I’ve ever done,” he said. “They’re both great to work with, and we’re having a blast.”

Looking to see your favorite SNL and movie characters make cameos in his stand-up show? Think again. This show is 100 percent Lovitz.

“I don’t do characters from SNL. I’m just funny as myself,” said Lovitz. “I love telling stories. I make fun of religion, racism and myself. I also play piano, tell jokes and sing songs.”

For more information, go to baltimore


Jordan Fliegel (Courtesy of CoachUp)

Jordan Fliegel (Courtesy of CoachUp)

When you look at the history of Jews in sports, there were a number of outstanding coaches and managers who also were outstanding teachers and mentors. A couple of Hall of Fame examples who come to mind are  Arnold “Red” Auerbach, a graduate of George Washington University who won nine NBA championships as the head coach of the Boston Celtics.  Auerbach led the Celtics to the 1957 title, and then from 1959 to 1966, Boston went on a run, winning eight straight NBA crowns.

Another Hall of Fame coach who is worthy of note is the Buffalo Bills’ Marvin “Marv” Levy, whose teams of the early 1990s were some of the most successful in NFL history. He has the distinction of being the only coach in NFL history to win four straight AFC championships (1990-1993), then to lose four consecutive Super Bowls.

So where are the next great Jewish coaches coming from?

Jordan Fliegel, founder and CEO of CoachUp and author of ‘Reaching the Next Level,’ a book about the importance of good coaching, thinks a large number of talented people could come from JCCs and private Jewish high schools.

His company is a leader in pairing coaches with teams as well as with individuals who want instruction and teaching. What makes CoachUp special is that it has a national database of coaches that can either find or place coaches for any sport on a local basis.

Fliegel is proud of his Jewish heritage, and with his partners — former Major Leaguer Gabe Kapler, who played 13 seasons in the big leagues, and financial wizard David Fialkow —the trio feels there are plenty ofopportunities for Jews to be more involved in coaching.

JT: How did you get started in CoachUp?

Fliegel: I founded CoachUp from my heart and my personal experience. I had a private coach in basketball who worked with me, helping me improve from an average high school player to a collegiate, and then to a professional player in Israel. His coaching had a tremendous impact on my game and on my confidence, both on the court and in the classroom. Private coaching really changed my life. I later became a private coach to have that same impact on the next generation of basketball players along the talent-rich Interstate 95 corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C.

After getting my MBA at Tel Aviv University, I worked at a venture-backed online marketplace and spent weekends in the gym conducting training sessions for my athletes. I recognized the need in the market to help athletes connect with private coaches [and] also to find coaches for teams in all sports in schools from the eighth grade through high school and into college. My goal is simple: to help former athletes earn a living doing what they love either as a private coach or getting involved coaching team sports.

Are there places for young, talented Jewish coaches to start or to take the next step in their careers?

Both locally and nationally there is a need for quality coaches working at the JCCs as well as Jewish high schools. We as Jews learn from a very early age the most important part of becoming a successful coach, and that is the importance of being a great teacher. The better the teacher, the better the coach, and I do feel that inside the Jewish community at the JCCs and the private Jewish high schools there are great opportunities for young coaches to begin their careers. The JCCs and high schools need quality young men and women to serve as head coaches in all sports as well as private coaches who can take talented players to the next level. That next level could be a college scholarship, or in some rare cases in sports such as tennis and golf, the step could be getting the players ready for a professional career. I really think JCCs and Jewish high schools are the best jumping-off points for young coaches to get their start, and CoachUp is getting involved in matching the right coaches with the right jobs.

What do young coaches need to know before entering the business?

Let’s begin with team coaches: They have two central roles. They must have not only an in-depth knowledge of the sport they want to coach, but also outstanding organizational skills. Coaching a team requires that a person excel at being a good teacher of the sport while developing strategy, plays, lineup changes, practice schedules and individual player development. Meanwhile, the private coach is focused on his pupil with the main goal of maximizing their skills and talents to take them to their highest level. Most athletes who want to be Olympians seek out the help of private coaches because it takes more than just their team coach to put in the long hours and personal attention that goes into developing someone into an elite athlete.

I think that it is also important to note in the case of a private coach you certainly do not have to be an Olympic-quality athlete to need one.  Any parent or athlete at a JCC or Jewish day school who is looking for sports lessons for their child or for golf, tennis, swimming, yoga or dance lessons or for a personal trainer could use a private coach.”

Your Grandfather was a big part of your life and influenced why you played basketball in Israel. Tell us about him.

My grandfather was Bernie Fliegel, one of the greatest college and professional basketball players in the United States in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He played center for City College in New York, and in 1938, as a senior, he was named a first-team All-America. He won the Haggerty Award, given annually to the best player in New York City. He went on to have a very successful professional career in the American Basketball League, before leaving the sport to join the Army and fight in World War II.

He encouraged me after college to make aliyah, gain Israeli citizenship and experience my dream of playing professional basketball. He had three main passions outside his family: Judaism, basketball and Israel. He passed away during my second year in Israel, but to have shared that one season in which I played for Hapoel Jerusalem was very special for both of us.

My grandfather and all of my coaches, both here and in Israel, taught me the importance of dedication, loyalty, leadership and treating your teammates like family. Those traits are all so very important in becoming a successful coach.

Fliegel’s book, “Reaching the Next Level,” is a super read for anyone interested in coaching. The book has chapters contributed by professional coaches and athletes, such as hockey great Cam Neely and basketball’s Tommy Amaker. Those interested in either becoming a coach or finding a coach can access all of the key information at, and search the site for available coaches in the Baltimore area.

‘That’s When the Music Really Hit Me’

Rabbi Lionel Chiswell, born in Liverpool England, attended the same  synagogue as Beatles manager Brian Epstein. (Marc Shapiro)

Rabbi Lionel Chiswell, born in Liverpool England, attended the same
synagogue as Beatles manager Brian Epstein. (Marc Shapiro)

He may be a Beatles fan now, but it wasn’t until a 1963 Christmas radio broadcast that Rabbi Lionel Chiswell caught on, late for someone from Liverpool, which was well engulfed in Beatlemania by then.

The rabbi, who now lives in Pikesville, grew up in Liverpool and attended synagogue with Brian Epstein, who would later become the Beatles’ manager. Read about the Liverpool days in this story.

He remembers one of The Beatles saying something that resonated with him, so he took a deeper listen.

“It was very beautiful the sentiment I think John expressed it. He says, ‘Ya know, there’s a lot of people who don’t care to keep Christmas Day because they have another religion, some don’t believe in it,’ and he said it must be very lonely for them, so he says ‘as a treat we’ll take over the airwaves,’” Chiswell remembered. “I had nothing to do because Christmas Day was a bit lonely, although I knew it wasn’t my Yom Tov. … That’s when the music really hit me.”

Even when other artists performed their songs, it affected him. He remembers one performance by Matt Monro, who he said was akin to England’s Frank Sinatra.

“He sang a beautiful song, I still remember it and it still captivates me today. It was called ‘And I Love Her,’” he said. “After it, I get farklempt sometimes when I talk about it, he says ‘this beautiful music,’ he says it to the camera, ‘that was created by Lennon and McCartney.’ I said ‘my goodness.’”

Once he left Liverpool to pursue his career as a rabbi, he lost touch with the Epstein family. But years later, he wound up connecting with Brian and Clive’s aunt, whose name he can’t recall, when he was the rabbi at a retirement home in Cincinnati. Their aunt was a volunteer at the home, and asked to meet with the rabbi when she heard he was from Liverpool. She brought a scrapbook she had made that had newspaper clippings, including a photo of all four Beatles at Brian Epstein’s memorial service in 1967. Epstein would have been 80 on Sept. 19.

“She brought me things I hadn’t seen … the four Beatles with — well they obviously never wore a yarmulkes — with yarmulkes perched on their head,” he said. “There was genuine grief if you could see their faces.”

And although he missed them in the early days, Chiswell almost met Paul McCartney in Atlanta in 2002. A man who knew McCartney’s American manager had paid for Chiswell’s flight to Atlanta and arranged a meeting for them to talk about Liverpool and the Epsteins. However, McCartney’s wife-to-be at the time, Heather Mills, cancelled the meeting saying Paul was tired and needed to rest before his show. Chiswell still got to see the show.

“It was fantastic,” Chiswell said. “It was all him. He played two-and-a-half hours.”

Does Chiswell still listen to The Beatles?

“Oh, if they’re on, yeah,” he said. “If they’re on, I don’t want to be interrupted. I tell someone to call back later.”

High Holidays: Toddler Edition

Coloring, crafting and shofar blowing?

With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur just around the corner, Jewish preschools are inviting the high holidays into their classrooms. From dipping apples in honey to learning where the horn for the shofar comes from, teachers in Baltimore are rolling the Jewish holidays into their curriculums.

Enter Ilene Brooks’ classroom at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s EB Hirsh Early Childhood Center. With Rosh Hashanah play box sets and baby shofars, her 4-year-olds learn about the holiday through playtime. Brooks’ students plant apple trees, taste honey samples and create birthday cards to introduce the Jewish customs and values at an early age.

“We focus on play as a main pathway to education,” says Brooks. “From this Rosh Hashanah table set that has a fake round challah and candlesticks to baking a birthday cake for the Jewish New Year, we incorporate the holiday’s general concepts into our classroom every day.”
As part of the BHC community, rabbis and cantors also make guest appearances in the classrooms. By triggering different senses, the entire staff allows students to see, hear, touch, feel and taste the holidays.

“All this week, rabbis and cantors will visit the classes with the shofar,” says preschool director Renee Stadd. “We want the students to feel the horn of the shofar and listen to the sounds it makes. By appealing to the senses, students will remember different aspects of the holiday better than from a lecture.”

While Baltimore Hebrew focuses on playtime, Melissa Lebowitz, director of the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community Preschool, says she is giving the power back to the students. Studying the Reggio Emilia self-guided approach to education, she applies the academic technique to the High Holidays.

“I traveled to Italy to learn how the Reggio Emilia approach works and brought it back to Beth Tfiloh,” says Lebowitz. “The approach is based off the students’ interests and how they want to study. For example, when we were reading a book about Rosh Hashanah this year, one of the students asked where honey comes from. From there, we planned the entire lesson around honey and beehives. Now, when students see honey, they associate it with the Jewish New Year.”

By creating a connection between Rosh Hashanah and birthdays, the emergent curriculum also uses material goods as part of the lesson.“Rosh Hashanah is a birthday,” says Lebowitz. “Here is how we would teach it: First, we ask, what is a birthday? Then, we would have the students play with hula hoops. Hula hoops are circular. Birthdays come around once a year. Rosh Hashanah is the world’s birthday. It is a continuous thread of study.”

Rachael Schwartz also uses a hands-on approach at the Joseph & Corinne Schwartz Preschool at Beth Israel Congregation. Using different techniques to teach the high holidays, she intertwines the upcoming Jewish events with her general curriculum. With students ranging from 2 to 5 years old, Schwartz builds High Holiday ideals from year to year.

“During Rosh Hashanah, we use apples to solve math problems,” says Schwartz. “We will cut the apple in half and look at the seeds. We count the seeds and use them for addition and subtraction. Through the combination of secular and Jewish concepts together, our students have a well-rounded education.”

In addition to educating the students about the High Holidays, the Owings Mills institution brings the entire community together to celebrate the holidays.

“We have an annual trip to Baugher’s Orchards in Carroll County,” says Schwartz. “Families come together to pick apples for Rosh Hashanah. On Sept. 21, preschool students and
parents will build holiday traditions together.”

While most preschools focus on Rosh Hashanah, early childhood centers also bring in basic concepts of Yom Kippur as well. From throwing challah in local lakes — a reference to the Rosh Hashanah afternoon custom of tashlich — to decorating flip flops to wear instead of leather shoes, students slowly understand that Yom Kippur is a day of atonement.

“We tell students that Yom Kippur is a day to say ‘I’m sorry’ for all the mistakes they made,” says Brooks. “Although we focus more on Rosh Hashanah, we want students to understand why their parents do not consume food and why the holiday is so important.”

From institution to institution, the general approach is one of experiences over lectures.

Says Schwartz:”The bottom line is: Students need to experience the holidays to learn as much as possible.”



Photos Palisades Intl Corp/Photofest ©Palisades Intl Corporation

A half-century after its unexpected and enormous success, “Sallah” stands as a landmark of Israeli cinema and a window on a bygone era.

Israeli columnist, author and satirist Ephraim Kishon’s 1964 film debut is a take-no-prisoners, culture-clash comedy about the “education” of a Sephardic immigrant who wants nothing more than a new house for his large family. Improbably, the movie sold 1.5 million tickets at home, played for nine months in New York and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

The first film in the hugely prolific career of producer Menachem Golan, who passed away in early August, “Sallah” also introduced actor Chaim Topol to the wider world.

Newly restored for its 50th anniversary and recently screened and celebrated at the Jerusalem Film Festival, “Sallah” airs Sept. 16 on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) with another key title in the Israeli canon, the 1955 battlefield drama “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer.”

The black-and-white double bill is the centerpiece of TCM’s expansive series airing Tuesdays in September, “The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film.” Other highlights include the rarely screened Edward Dymytryk-Kirk Douglas drama “The Juggler” (part of a Sept. 9 focus on the Holocaust), the little-known 1934 historical drama “The House of Rothschild” (Sept. 23, when the theme is “Tackling Prejudice”) and the terrific World War II epic “The Young Lions,” featuring Montgomery Clift as a Jewish G.I. (one of four coming-of-age sagas airing Sept. 30).

“Sallah” opens with the exuberant Sallah (a bearded, hulking Topol) and his wide-eyed brood deplaning in the Promised Land, anticipating the streets to be paved with opportunity, if not gold. After some perfunctory form-filling, they are loaded on a truck and taken to a transit camp of tawdry shacks (and an unpaved street).

Sallah may be an old-school patriarch, but he’s also a schemer and ace negotiator, albeit with his own standard of integrity. He’s determined that his family won’t remain in their leaky, rundown house for long, no matter whose feathers he ruffles or what angles he works.

“Sallah” has a little bit of everything, from a musical number that foreshadows Topol’s portrayal of Tevye (onstage and in the 1971 film) to a dig at American Jewish benefactors who support the idea of Israel but want nothing to do with the people working the fields.

A nearby kibbutz “adopts” the transit camp and dispatches a pretty, geeky social worker (a young Gila Almagor) with an armful of forms who’s no match for Sallah’s bluster and blather. The fledgling, undeveloped State of Israel may not be a model of calm and order, but by comparison Sallah is an anarchist with no understanding or use for the prevailing procedures.

Viewers may cringe at Sallah’s boorishness, but it’s the most effective response to the Ashkenazi establishment’s relentless condescension to the pragmatic Sephardic immigrants. The kibbutzniks see themselves as educated and progressive and the Mizrahis as barbarians with primitive customs that they should abandon and forget.

“Forget?” Sallah responds angrily. “Why should I forget? You always want us to forget what’s not good for you.”

As it happens, Sallah is defending the cash payment he’s demanded from his daughter’s matrimonially minded kibbutznik boyfriend. His argument is surprisingly persuasive, even to our modern ears, and cuts to the core of the then-existing inequality.

While Israel still has second-class citizens, it must be said that Kishon’s satire doesn’t bite as hard today. When “Sallah” was made, the kibbutz symbolized Israel’s idealism at home and identity abroad. In the ensuing decades, the presence and power of the kibbutzim has waned.

At the same time, the friction between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews has been overshadowed by the tension between ultra-religious and secular Jews. Finally, it must be acknowledged that both the world and movies are harsher than they were in 1964.

That is not to take anything away from Kishon, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor who lived in a transit camp, kibbutz and housing project after emigrating to Israel, and knew whereof he wrote.

In particular, he was steeped in the lesson that Sallah comes to learn: In Israel, you get what you don’t want.

The ‘Wow’ Factor

Honey-glazed Carrots (©

Honey-glazed Carrots (©

The high holidays are a time when I channel my inner Tevye. He starts singing softly in the back of my mind in late August, but as September nears, his plea is loud and clear: “Tradition! Tradition!”

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur food customs have evolved over the years, but it is safe to say that most menus will include chicken soup, gefilte fish, brisket, honey and apples and conclude after Yom Kippur with a festive dairy meal. My mission in cooking is to find the new and unique, so my inner Tevye and I struggle at this time of year. Usually I manage to find a way to tweak tradition enough to satisfy us both. Here are my 2014 ideas for you to use as is — or adapt to your own traditions.

All these foods symbolize our hopes and prayers for the coming year. For example, the Aramaic word for dates is tamri. We eat dates not only because they are sweet for a sweet year, but also because tamri sounds like sheyitamu, the word for “removing enemies from our midst.” With the current situation in Israel, once again a tradition is contemporary. There is a special prayer that is said after eating dates: “May it be your will, Lord our G-d and G-d of our fathers, that there come an end to our enemies, haters and those who wish evil on us.” I will serve each person a date and say this prayer all together as a group.

On a lighter note, here are great ways to serve honey and sweets. I take little shot glasses and put about one inch of honey into each. Then I place small skewered squares of challah and apple pieces sticking up in each glass. Or I make honey cups for each guest out of scooped-out small apples that have been rubbed with lemon juice to keep from turning dark. Pass the sliced apples for dipping.

Presentation can make all the difference. Here’s a real “wow” factor I’m using and can be done way before the holidays: I took two of the biggest, widest fresh carrots I could find. I peeled and cut them into large pieces and simmered them in water that had been seasoned with a little chicken bouillon until just soft. I then thickly sliced them on a diagonal with a sharp knife. I used my smallest Jewish star cookie cutter to make stars. I froze all the stars to use in my chicken soup and on top of my gefilte fish. I coarsely mashed leftover pieces to add to my chicken soup or matzo balls (no waste!).


Noreen Gilletz’s Coke Brisket
Honey-Glazed Carrots

Bernice Schloss’ Easy Chicken
Stacked Tomatoes & Cheese
Light Ricotta Cheese Cheesecake


Tips & Tricks
• Chill wine quickly: Wrap the bottle in a wet kitchen towel before placing in the freezer. In 30 minutes you will achieve the perfect 50-degree drinking temperature. Release the frozen towel by placing briefly under warm water.

• Caramelize sliced, cored apples or pears, unpeeled, to garnish the top of your honey or apple cake.

• Reduce port wine to a syrup and glaze your favorite honey cake.

• Never refrigerate honey.

• Make your own house spread for Yom Kippur; mix lox pieces/bits with whipped cream cheese and add chopped fresh chives: cheaper, colorful and delicious!

Richie Frieman Strikes Again

(Photo provided)

(Photo provided)

At just 35 years old, Richie Frieman has reincarnated his career numerous times.

Frieman was The Thrill from Israel-Buster Maccabi during an 8-year professional wrestling career; published the Pen’s Eye View, an online music magazine still widely read; became host of Modern Manners Guy at; started the clothing line and philanthropic endeavor Charm City Babies; wrote award-winning children’s picture books “Terple: The Sky is Just the Start” and its sequel, “Always Dream Bigger,” and has just finished writing his first novel, “Where the Heart Left Off,” released last month.

Frieman, who is husband to Jamie, father to 6-year-old Maddy and 2-year-old Cole and a full time marketing and communications professional, still found time to write. He said the book’s story was inspired by the real-life experience of his wife’s grandfather, Howard Smith, of Owings Mills.

“The idea for the book kicked off when my grandfather [by marriage] came home and told us he was ‘picked up’ in Wegmans by an old [high school] girlfriend,” he said. Smith, then about 84 and a widower, was dating someone else, so he declined the former girlfriend’s invitations to renew their friendship.

“So the idea was based on the concept of what it’s like for two people who haven’t seen one another in 65 years to run into each other,” described Frieman. “Nowadays, with social media, we can pretty much find anyone, but when they were young, it was possible that two people could part and never see each other again. Why did they split? Why did they take completely different paths?”

The mystery set in Baltimore tells the story of Alfred and Ella who intend to spend their lives together, but suddenly one disappears. Judaism is an important thread in the story, and the details of Frieman’s writing echo his strong ties to both Baltimore and his Jewish heritage.

“The book starts in the 1940s,” said Frieman. “There was a lot of anti-Semitism in Baltimore then. It was not the best of times.”

Frieman gathered historic information from his grandfather and other older relatives and scoured the Internet for articles and photos from the time period.

“With a lot of my writing, I don’t tell anyone until it’s finished,” he confessed. “So I had to ask questions cautiously, just poking around. I was always very close with my grandparents. What they went through with the war, the economy, entertainment … that whole generation is fascinating and inspiring.”

Frieman offered his now 88-year-old Grandpa Howard the first read once the book was in print.
“He read it in one night and he had never done that before,” said Frieman. “I didn’t tell him before he read it that it was dedicated to him.”

Frieman mentioned some of his favorite hometown venues, including Miss Shirley’s Café, Oregon Grill, Sagamore Farm and Hunt Valley (called Cole Valley) in the novel.

“To me, those areas are heaven. I wanted to show people who don’t live here that Baltimore is not only ‘The Wire,’” he asserted. “I feel that if you’re going to write about a place, you should include local spots. It’s almost a responsibility. I love this area. I want to live here all my life.”

“Where the Heart Left Off” ratchets up suspense by the back and forth narrative between the 1940s and the present.

“I knew what the ending would be all along,” said Frieman. “I like to think Albert did the right thing, but some romantics may feel differently. I leave it up to the readers to judge how they would have handled his situation.”

Frieman will read from his novel on Sept. 14 at 1 p.m. at Greetings and Readings in Hunt Valley and on Sept. 20 at 11 a.m. at Black Eyed Susan in Glyndon.


Richie Frieman Reads from “Where the Heart Left Off”
Sept. 14 at 1 p.m. Greetings and Readings Hunt Valley
Sept. 20 at 11 a.m. Black Eyed Susan in Glyndon

Politics in Song

090514_capital-stepsThe Capitol Steps will highlight Beth El Congregation’s Evening of Celebration on Sept. 14.

The political satire group was formed in 1981 in Washington, D.C., as a group of Senate staffers putting on a show for a Christmas party and has since expanded to a 20-member troupe that has performed in all 50 states. While most shows focus on politics on the national level, some, like the upcoming show at Beth El, feature some extra touches.

The 90-minute show will take on some subjects related to Israel and Judaism, something the troupe’s five Jewish members were qualified to help with.

“We sing Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas to the tune of ‘Embraceable You,’ but instead we sing “Erasable Jew,’” said Brad Van Grack, a current member with 23 years’ experience in the troupe.

The job for Van Grack and the other performers is full time. In addition to Friday and Saturday pre-show rehearsals, they must constantly practice their parts and keep up with the news of the day. Because politics is an ever-changing topic, the shows change often, and performers are constantly learning new material.

While Van Grack came from a background in performance art, many of the troupe members have direct experience in Washington politics. All told, the Steps’ website boasts, the group has a combined experience of 62 years spent in 18 congressional offices.

This month’s performance at Beth El won’t be the first for The Capitol Steps, but it will feature some material new to the Baltimore crowd.

“We’ve got a little bit about the IRS and the email situation, we touch on immigration, we talk about NSA spying,” said Van Grack, in addition to skits about Greece and the Redskins’ name controversy and a new song that plays on Pharrell William’s Spring 2014 hit song “Happy.”

A Conversation About Nothing

090514_seinfeldEver wonder who coined the phrase: “Yada yada yada?” What about “double dipping?” “Shrinkage?” Although these terms are now part of English vernacular, that wasn’t always the case.

All three phrases came out of the brain of journalist, comedy writer, TV producer and YouTube host-turned-novelist, Peter Mehlman. Mehlman, a University of Maryland alum, will bring his unique brand of comedy to the Gordon Center for Performing Arts on Sept.18 at 7 p.m.

A Queens, N.Y., native, Mehlman, 58, said that “being funny has always mattered” to him. The decision to attend Maryland came to him while playing basketball one day.

“I stopped mid-game and just thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’” Mehlman said. “All of the N.Y. state schools seemed too rural. I thought it would be good to be on a campus near a big city. Maryland was eye-opening.

“Being around Jews from Baltimore was so different,” he continued. “I think that Jews in Baltimore, and most Jews in the suburbs, have this day-to-day awareness of being Jewish. They don’t take it for granted. In New York, there are so many Jews that you don’t really think about it too much.”

Mehlman said he keeps in touch with many of the friends he made at Maryland. He even plans to see some of them when he visits Baltimore next month.

After graduating, Mehlman took a job as a sports writer for The Washington Post, which led to a position as a writer on ABC TV’s “SportsBeat with Howard Cosell.”

“He was the best,” Mehlman said of the legendary sports announcer. “He was incredibly funny, and you felt you were in the center of the sports universe when you worked with him. He took so much pleasure in his own success. Looking back, it’s quite refreshing. Famous people always complain it’s a burden to be famous. Howard never felt it was a burden. He loved being famous.”

Mehlman remained with “SportsBeat” from 1982 to 1985, when the show was canceled. Afterward, he returned to journalism, writing for publications such as The New York Times Magazine and Esquire, but he was forever transformed when he ran into Larry David, an acquaintance, who told him about a “little show” he was developing with Jerry Seinfeld. The rest is history. Mehlman became one of the show’s longest-tenured writers and eventually its executive producer.

“Working on Seinfeld was like being on the greatest thrill ride of all time. I knew this was something special,” he said. “We were hysterical all the time.”

Mehlman attributed his success on “Seinfeld,” for which he was nominated five times for an Emmy Award and once for a Writers Guild Award, not so much to his talent as to the fact that he behaved “like a mensch.”

“Other writers would make a big tzimmes when there was one little edit to their writing,” he said. “They screwed up their futures.”

As for his favorite episodes, Mehlman said “The Deal,” an episode written by David in which main characters Jerry and Elaine devise a plan where they will be able to have sex but remain friends, “was one of the greatest pieces of writing ever. It was unbelievable.”

Since “Seinfeld” went off the air in 1998 — incidentally, Mehlman liked the final episode — he has kept busy, creating the sitcom “It’s Like You Know” which aired on ABC for two seasons, publishing a collection of his essays called “Mandela Was Late” in 2013 and hosting a 2010 Webby Award-winning YouTube program called “Peter Mehlman’s Narrow World of Sports.” On the show, Mehlman interviews athletes such as basketball star Kobe Bryant and gymnast Shawn Johnson and asks questions he has “always wanted to ask.” An interview might go like this to Kobe Bryant: “What would happen if after a game you said, ‘It wasn’t a team effort. We won all because of me.’ Would the world explode?”

Mehlman’s first novel, “It Won’t Always Be This Great,” will be released this month. The novel tells the story of a middle-aged Jewish podiatrist, husband and father from the suburbs, who, in a sudden fit of anger, vandalizes a local store and sets in motion a highly unexpected turn of events that he shares with a comatose friend.

“I wanted to give it a form where it could become a confessional. He could really express himself, yet, since the friend is in a coma, it’s almost like he is rehearsing telling his story. It’s also about a good marriage,” said Mehlman, who is single. “Everyone is always complaining about his wife. No one ever writes about a marriage that works. It was a good challenge.”

To reserve tickets for this free show, visit

A Healthy Dose?

082914_cover1As children return to school this week, some parents, physicians and scientists are engaged in an increasingly fierce debate over the safety and necessity of childhood vaccinations for diseases such as polio, hepatitis B, pertussis, diphtheria and chicken pox.

Emotions run high on both sides, with parents who choose not to vaccinate claiming that they face ostracism by their neighbors and worrying that, if found out, their children will be banned from schools, car pools and play groups. Those who do vaccinate their children claim that those who don’t are putting young babies and the immuno-compromised at risk and subjecting first-world societies to potential epidemics of diseases once thought eradicated. A small but growing number of today’s parents, most of whom are too young to remember when the vaccines for these diseases did not exist, are convinced that the diseases no longer pose serious risks to the public health.

Instead, these parents believe that it is the vaccines, rather than the diseases they inoculate against, that pose dangers to their children.

“I think we have lost the fear of these diseases,” said Baltimore pediatrician Rona Stein. “It’s wonderful that we’ve forgotten them, because they are now so rare [in the U.S.]; but the downside of that is that we don’t remember how serious they are.

“If you go to an underdeveloped country you will see them and realize they are not just minor illnesses,” she continued. “Anyone who’s been through a polio epidemic would gladly stand in line for the vaccine to get their children protected.”

R.B., a 32-year-old mother of four who, like others interviewed for this article, would not allow her name to be published for fear of being exposed as a non-vaccinator, is not convinced by the overwhelming scientific and governmental consensus that says vaccinating children is necessary for public health.

She maintains that most people who contract polio today have no symptoms at all, while M.D., a local 29-year-old non-practicing nurse and mother of three, says that epidemics of yesteryear — the American Academy of Pediatrics points out that polio killed 6,000 people in 1916 and left another 27,000 paralyzed — had more to do with lack of hygiene.

“The world today is completely different than it was during the polio epidemic,” said M.D. “It was dirty. An average healthy person couldn’t get a disease like polio today. Polio in a healthy person today is usually asymptomatic or it has minor symptoms and comes and goes. Then the person develops immunity forever.”

Views such as that have many doctors and health policymakers concerned about the risk of diseases reappearing. Although there have been parents who chose not to vaccinate their children as far back as the late 18th century when the smallpox vaccine was developed, in the past 15 years, the number of parents in the U.S. refusing, delaying or selectively vaccinating their children has increased.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, parental refusal or deferral of childhood vaccinations has led to an increase in diseases such as measles, which was “officially eliminated” in the U.S. in 2000. The federal agency reports that between Jan. 1 and Aug. 8 of this year, 18 outbreaks and 593 confirmed measles cases occurred in the United States.

Pertussis, a bacterial disease that causes violent fits of coughing and is known as whooping cough, has experienced a record increase this year, according to the CDC, with 9,964 cases being reported between Jan. 1 and June 16. That represents a 24 percent increase over the same period the year before.

Mumps and chicken pox as well have made comebacks in recent years, and for the most part, the CDC attributes the increase in all of these formerly “eliminated” diseases to low vaccination coverage in certain communities.

“When a critical portion of a community is immunized against a contagious disease, most members of the community are protected against that disease because there is little opportunity for an outbreak,”, a website maintained by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, explains. “Even those who are not eligible for certain vaccines — such as infants, pregnant women or immuno-compromised individuals — get some protection because the spread of contagious disease is contained. This is known as community or [herd] immunity.”

Conversely, when relatively high numbers of people in a community are not vaccinated, that protection is diminished. That may explain, say scientists, why close-knit communities such as the Amish and others who refuse vaccination because of their religious beliefs have been among the hardest hit by these outbreaks. In recent years, there have been several outbreaks in Haredi Jewish communities as well, most notably in the spring of 2013 when at least 58 people in Orthodox Jewish enclaves in the Borough Park and Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn, N.Y., developed measles. This was reportedly the largest outbreak in the United States since the endemic spread of measles was eliminated.

Dissenting views
Despite these outbreaks, authorities maintain that most religious Jews are vaccinated and believe in the safety of vaccinations.

“Judaism traditionally expects certain actions of its believers to maintain health,” wrote John D. Grabenstein in a 2013 article in the journal Vaccine. “Pikuach nefesh, acting to save one’s ownor another’s life, is a primary value, a positive commandment. Judaic principles emphasize the community benefits of disease prevention in a manner superior to individual preference, based on scriptures such as Leviticus 19:16.”

Generally speaking, Jews who have chosen not to vaccinate have done so for medical, not religious, reasons.

An increase in concerns about the safety of vaccinations was seen after the publication of a 1998 study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield of England in the medical journal “Lancet” that asserted a correlation between the vaccine given to prevent measles, mumps and rubella and digestive inflammation and autism. Initially, some believed that thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative contained in some vaccines, could be a culprit. In response, the U.S. Public Health Service, the American Academy of Pediatrics and vaccine manufacturers decided that all but trace amounts of thimerosal should be eliminated from vaccines. Yet, a 2010 CDC study published in the journal “Pediatrics” concluded that “exposure to ethyl mercury from thimerosal-containing immunizations during pregnancy … or as a young child” was not associated with any autism-spectrum disorders.

The same year, Wakefield’s study was discredited and his article was retracted by “Lancet” after journalist Brian Deere uncovered evidence of Wakefield’s medical misconduct, including the use of fraudulent data, unethical treatment of children and undisclosed conflicts of interest. In the aftermath of Deere’s reporting, Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine in the United Kingdom and was dismissed from his position as a gastroenterologist and researcher at the Royal Free Hospital.

Many subsequent studies reported that no relationship existed between MMR and autism.

“Over a million children have been studied and no link between vaccines and autism has been found,” said Stein, the Baltimore pediatrician. “The safety of vaccines has been proven over and over again.”

Still, the belief that vaccinations may cause autism, sudden infant death syndrome, diabetes, asthma, allergies and other developmental disabilities rages on. R.B., who lives in Pikesville and is pregnant with her fifth child, says she vaccinated her first two children, now 6 and 7, but that doing so betrayed her intuition.

“At 2 months old, my baby received four shots at one time. He began to get high fevers. I brought him to the doctor, and they said this was normal,” she recalled.

“I said, ‘My baby was normal. You gave him his first fever!’ In between when my second and third children were born, I started paying more attention. More and more vaccinations were coming out every year.”

When she was pregnant with her third child, she had had enough.

“This is crazy!” R.B. remembered saying. “I can’t believe all of this is healthy. I will read about each one and decide which ones are necessary and which ones are not necessary.”

M.D. shares a similar story.

“I just assumed vaccinating was something you did, because vaccines saved humanity,” she said with a chuckle. “But then when my oldest was born she had a traumatic birth; she was small and bruised and weak, and we didn’t want to get the hepatitis B vaccine right away.”

Her pediatrician offered to inoculate her daughter at the first visit, but by the one month checkup, M.D. was still apprehensive. After pressure from her baby’s doctor, M.D. relented to having her daughter vaccinated at 6 weeks old.

“She kept having weird symptoms: bloody diapers and hysterical crying,” M.D. said. “I cut out all the stuff from her diet [that might have been causing the symptoms], and she was basically living off rice cakes and tuna, but nothing helped. At about 10 months, we went to our regular doctor’s visit and were told she was due for all these shots. I told him, ‘She has not been herself lately, and we are about to travel [to Israel]. Can we wait until we get back?”

Ultimately, M.D. and her husband decided not to continue vaccinating.

In retrospect, the mother has no regrets. She is unfazed by the possibility that her children might contract any of the diseases vaccines are meant to prevent, and she does not believe they are endangering others. She further believes the diseases that vaccines protect against are not that serious and, like R.B., accuses doctors and pharmaceutical companies of being in league together to make more money through vaccine deliveries.

“We would make a lot more money if we didn’t vaccinate,” remarked Stein. Both M.D and R.B. believe the concept of herd immunity is a myth.

082914_cover2If those who vaccinate their children “really believe vaccinations protect, why are they afraid we are putting them at risk?” wondered M.D. “Vaccine immunity wears off in a maximum of 10 years. That’s why people need boosters. My unvaccinated child is as unprotected as people whose vaccinations have worn out.

“In my world view, a child recently vaccinated is shedding a live virus whereas my unvaccinated kids aren’t,” she added. “People need to make their decisions based on fact and research. Most people don’t.”

Dr. Neal Halsey, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins University, agrees that people should base their decisions on facts and research as well. But he differs significantly on the research and facts on which he relies.

“Vaccines don’t cause autism,” he said. “This has been firmly proven by excellent science. There should be no doubt any longer.”

His response to those who say vaccines aren’t effective: “Vaccines work extremely well, but they are not perfect,” he said. “Measles vaccines are about 95 percent effective, and pertussis is somewhat lower. Herd protection works, but it is dependent on the cooperation of the whole community. These diseases are transferred person to person. Only 1 percent of kids have a real medical reason not to be vaccinated.”