All About ‘Attitude’

Born to a family of Russian Jewish  immigrants, Gustavo Bulgach says, “Tango is more than the music you hear in Buenos Aires, it’s something you breathe.” (Courtesy of Skirbal)

Born to a family of Russian Jewish
immigrants, Gustavo Bulgach says, “Tango is more than the music you hear in Buenos Aires, it’s something you breathe.”
(Courtesy of Skirbal)

LOS ANGELES — The music that packs the Skirball Cultural Center’s stately courtyard — Yiddish tango — is a musical hybrid twice over.

On the tango side, it is a blend of African-born rhythms and a potpourri of European music styles. On the Yiddish side, it combines mournful liturgical melodies with folk songs.

Tango too is famous for its sensual dance, while Yiddish music is rooted in the festive freylekhs of traditional wedding bands.

In combination, the two prove irresistible, as the concert crowd stands and sways to the tangled rhythms.

For Gustavo Bulgach, 47, band leader of Yiddish Tango Club — the star attraction at the Skirball on Aug. 21 — the music is also a reminder of his childhood in Buenos Aires in the 1970s and ’80s. Born to a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, Bulgach grew up in Argentina learning Jewish folk music at the feet of his grandfather, a passionate music lover, and in the synagogue founded by his grandfather.

At the same time, he says, “Tango is more than the music you hear in Buenos Aires, it’s something you breathe.”

Bulgach is far from the first to combine Jewish music and tango in a heady combination. Tango music was born in late 19th-century Argentina in communities of newly arrived European immigrants, many of them Jews.

As Jewish musicians learned to play in the increasingly popular style, they added their own musical and linguistic flourishes — not only joining major tango orchestras, but also composing new tangos in Yiddish. Max Zalkind, for one, composed both in Yiddish (“Odesa Mama”) and Spanish (“Mi Quinta in Castelar”).

At the same time, as tango music became an international sensation, the genre swept across Eastern Europe. Records and music journals filtered into cities and shtetls and created a new tango style even in places never visited by touring Argentine

For example, as Lloica Czackis, a musician who has researched the history of Yiddish tango, noted in an article written for the website of World ORT, Poland “quickly became one of the capitals of European tango at a time when most of its musicians, both in the classical and popular scenes, were Jewish.”

The result was a pre-World War II profusion of Yiddish tango in Argentina, Eastern Europe and even America, as Yiddish-speaking Jews joined in the tango craze and made it their own.

The Holocaust also created its own grim chapter in the history of Yiddish tango, as the Nazis encouraged concentration camp orchestras, or lagernkapellen, to play tangos, which they considered less encouraging of rebellion than American jazz. Indeed, as Czackis notes, Paul Celan’s famous poem on the concentration camps, “Death Fugue,” was originally titled “Death Tango.”

Bulgach’s own renditions of Yiddish tango draw on these traditions and, at the same time, offer a fresh take on the genre. In some cases, Yiddish Tango Club plays traditional klezmer songs but with elements of tango, such as using the Argentine bandoneon rather than an accordion.

In other instances, Bulgach combines tunes and rhythms from both genres more freely, as in his self-composed “Librescu Tango.” And in other pieces still, the combination is already inherent in the music — for example, Bulgach notes that legendary tango composer Astor Piazzolla often said his favorite 3-3-2 rhythm was influenced by the Jewish music Piazzolla heard as a child in Brooklyn.

Jewish tango music also has experienced something of a revival. Bulgach says it has become common practice at Jewish concerts in Argentina for the musicians to perform an old Yiddish tango as part of the repertoire. At the same time, documentaries and concerts of Jewish tango music have sprung up across the United States, and Jewish tango music has even reappeared in Eastern Europe, repeating the patterns of nearly a century ago.

Above all, though, Bulgach says tango is more about a feeling than a specific harmony or rhythm.

“To me, the tango is like the blues,” he says. “It’s an attitude. It’s darkly lit. It’s ecstatic. It’s out of control.”

Likewise, in both tango and klezmer, Bulgach says the test of success is whether people are inspired to get up and dance.

By the end of the Yiddish Tango Club concert, the Skirball courtyard is crowded with dancers joyously swept up by the spirit of Yiddish tango. A few dance expert tangos in pairs, while most bop and bounce informally to the music.

As the evening comes to a close, Bulgach leads the band and his audience in a tango-ized version of “Hatikvah,” turning the anthem of hope into a lilting, dance-like melody.

‘Little White Lie’

Lacey Schwartz’s film  "Little White Lie" tells of her discovery in adulthood that her father was black.

Lacey Schwartz’s film “Little White Lie” tells of her discovery in adulthood that her father was black.

SAN FRANCISCO — When Lacey Schwartz celebrated her bat mitzvah more than two decades ago in her hometown of Woodstock, N.Y., a synagogue-goer turned to her and said, “It’s so nice to have an Ethiopian Jew in our midst.”

Never mind that Schwartz, a striking 37-year-old with long black curls and a megawatt smile, is about as American as they come. Raised by two Ashkenazi Jewish parents in a largely white upstate New York town, Schwartz’s complexion — darker than that of her relatives — had long been attributed to a Sicilian grandfather.

Despite lingering questions, she believed the story. But when Schwartz enrolled at Georgetown University and the Black Student Alliance sent her a welcome letter based on a picture she submitted, Schwartz could no longer deny something was amiss.

She confronted her mother, Peggy Schwartz, only to discover that her biological father was a black man named Rodney with whom she had had an affair.

The discovery of her family secret and Schwartz’s coming to terms with her newly complex racial identity serves as the basis for “Little White Lie,” a moving documentary that had its official world premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival earlier this month following screenings in Cape Cod and Philadelphia.

“I started from a place where being Jewish equaled being white,” said Schwartz. “So I had to push myself to expand my idea of what being Jewish was.”

Upon launching the project 10 years ago, Schwartz thought she was making a film about black Jews. At the time she was living in what she called a “racial closet.” Schwartz identified as black in the broader world, but at home she behaved as though nothing had changed.

082914_white-lies2Many therapy sessions and a degree from Harvard Law School later, Schwartz decided to hone in on her family’s story. Her biological father had passed away just shy of her 30th birthday, and she realized that if she didn’t investigate her own narrative, she was skirting the issue.
“I wanted people to be having these conversations, but I wasn’t even talking about things in my own life,” Schwartz said. “I felt strongly that I couldn’t talk the talk unless I walked the walk.”

Schwartz’s mother has been supportive of the project since its inception. Peggy Schwartz, 67, said she initially had some trepidation about how others might perceive her (“Will people think I’m a raving lunatic?” she quipped in a New York Jewish accent), but that quickly faded and she felt safe spilling her secrets on camera.

“I owed it to my daughter to no longer be deceptive about what my life was like,” Peggy Schwartz said of her participation in the film, which is slated to air next year on PBS. “She needed to go on her path, and she invited me to go on mine. I’m very grateful for that.”

Still, it wasn’t easy. Years of silence had built emotional walls that were hard to break through, and Schwartz had to push her mother to engage
in conversations about the real circumstances of her birth.

Schwartz’s father, Robert, long divorced from her mother, also agreed to participate but with markedly less enthusiasm. During a lively Q&A session following the San Francisco screening, Schwartz said that while the man she’d always known as “Daddy” went along with her process, it was not the path he might have chosen.

In a particularly moving, if awkward, scene in the film, Schwartz’s father calls her mother’s years-long affair and Lacey’s ensuing paternity — neither of which was divulged to him — “the ultimate betrayal.”

While Schwartz the filmmaker has embraced her black identity, it has not been at the expense of the strong Jewish cultural identity she developed during her formative years. Some of the earliest stirrings of the film came through her work with Reboot, a hand-picked collective of Jewish creative professionals who come together to explore meaning, community and identity.

“Reboot is a space that encourages you to ask the questions you really want to ask about your Jewish identity,” Schwartz said. “It has been inspirational.”

In addition to winning grants from major Jewish funders — the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, the Jewish federations of New York and San Francisco, and the Righteous Persons Foundation, among them — Schwartz’s film has also received long-term support from Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes racial, ethnic and cultural diversity in Jewish life.

Schwartz, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and twin 1-year-old sons, serves as the group’s national outreach director and its New York regional director. Diane Tobin, Be’chol Lashon’s founder and executive director, said the organization plans to use the film to educate teens and spark conversations about Jewish diversity.

Schwartz said that she hopes the film will catalyze discussion not only around race, but also the consequences of keeping family secrets.

“This is a very personal story, but it’s also universal,” she said. “It’s a project about family secrets and the power of telling the truth.”

The Last Stage of Life


Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (left) shares a happy moment with American spiritual teacher Ram Dass in 2008. Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, died last month.

Sara Davidson’s “The December Project” is a new book that should be read by all senior citizens and by those who hope to live a long life, for it raises a question that most of us have not been taught how to answer: What should we do in that final stage of our lives?

Many of us continue working past the traditional retirement age of 65, not because we need the money and not because we find the job fulfilling, but simply because it is the only thing we know how to do, and we are afraid of the emptiness we may experience if we stop. Some of us play cards or golf daily as a way of avoiding questions for which we have no answer. Old-age homes offer activities such as water exercises, shuffleboard, bridge, bingo, trips to the supermarket and visits to the doctor — as if only the bodies of the elderly need nurturing and not their minds. Life expectancy is rising, more and more of us are growing older, and yet most of us have no one to turn to who can teach us how to prepare for this last stage of life. That is why “The December Project” is so important.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (commonly known as “Reb Zalman”), a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement who died last month at age 89, was in his mid-80s when he decided to meet once a week with Davidson, a well-known author, in order to explore this topic. He answered her questions, not systematically but in a stream of consciousness kind of way, in which every question led to a story, and every story led to another one. After circling around from memory to insight to story to song, he came back to the question that Davidson had raised, the central question of “The December Project.”

The book is too full of insights to summarize, but here are some of Schachter-Shalomi’s suggestions that I found especially worth thinking about:

Make a life review: Count up all the things that you have accomplished that give you pride and all the mistakes you have made that cause you regret. Forgive those who have hurt you over the years and see how often the “harm” they caused you actually ended up leading to a blessing. For instance, Reb Zalman thinks of the man who fired him from his first rabbinical pulpit at a time when he really needed that job. Looking back, he realizes how rich his life has been and how many adventures he has had and how many great people he has met — all because he lost that job. How can he still be angry at that man in view of what losing that job led to?

Get ready for your end: This means more than just arranging your financial affairs and telling your loved ones what they mean to you, which most of us know to do. It means being inwardly prepared so that you will not be angry or surprised when the time comes. Schachter-Shalomi recalls that when he was a shochet (kosher slaughterer) years ago, he would comfort the chickens that he slaughtered by whispering to them that he was not there to hurt them and that he was not their enemy but that he was there to help them climb to a higher level by becoming food for human beings. As they worked together, Reb Zalman and the African-American chicken-pluckers he worked with would sing spiritual songs together. One of the songs that they taught him, “Travelin’ Shoes,” told of how when the angel of death comes to call, good people will respond that they are ready, that, in fact, they are wearing their traveling shoes just in case he comes. Schachter-Shalomi would get up and dance a few steps while singing that song, and as he did, what it means to get ready to meet your end became tangibly real.

Start disengaging from your body: Reb Zalman says that we and our bodies are bound together during life and that old age is the time to start loosening the strings. Say to your body, “Thank you for carrying me so long, and be patient. It will soon be time for you to rest, and it will soon be time for me to go on without you to a whole new level of being.”

Learn to let go: Knowing that the power you have must eventually be surrendered and that the status you possess is not permanent is not an veasy reality to come to terms with. But unless you can do that, your old age will be spoiled by efforts to clutch onto what cannot be held forever. Schachter-Shalomi ordained nearly 200 rabbis, cantors and pastors in his lifetime, and then, when old age came upon him, he withdrew and let others take his place. He attended the annual conferences of his students for as long as he could, but he no longer needed to be their guru. Instead, he drew back and made room for his students to become teachers, so that the Jewish Renewal movement that he had started would live on after him.

Davidson captured the spirit of this man of many sides in her interviews, and she has transmitted his insights for how to live in the “December” stage of life to all those who read her book. Since we already have books on how to be a teenager or an adult but so few wise books on how to live in old age, I recommend this volume wholeheartedly.

“The December Project” by Sara Davidson. Harper One (New York, 2014). 193 pages. $25.99.

Arts Cater to Students of All Kinds

OrchKids, a program of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, has more than 900 Baltimore City students. (Provided)

OrchKids, a program of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, has more than 900 Baltimore City students.

With its affordable cost of living and convenient East Coast location, Baltimore has become home to a booming arts community. From music to theater to dance to visual art, Baltimore has the outlets for it.

For those searching for their inner artist, looking to hone their skills or in need of a different kind of creative outlet, students can try their hands in a variety of mediums at several extracurricular art programs in the city. Youth in the juvenile justice system can “bling out” the exterior of an art museum, inner-city youth can create media about their lives, and budding young musicians and art students have several programs benefiting them.

“It’s helpful to have those after-school programs work with what’s happening in the school and help those kids who need extra support or the ones who are really talented,” said Elizabeth Stuart, president of the Maryland Art Education Association. “The after-school programs, the in-school programs, all of it goes hand-in-hand to help a child be successful.”

At the Maryland Institute College of Art, students of all artistic abilities and ages are offered classes in drawing, painting, computer design,
photography and more. There’s no competition to get into the programs, which offer scholarships.

“The thing that’s really significant about this is that it’s truly art education,” said David Gracyalny, MICA’s dean of the school for professional and continuing studies. “They’re really being intellectually challenged. They really have to think it through. If they want to tell a story, they have to think about why they want to tell a story.”

MICA offers young people’s studios for grades 1 to 8, portfolio preparation for those preparing to apply to art school and a summer pre-college program that gives students the opportunity to work with MICA faculty and other professional artists in a campus environment.

Similar to the art institution offering instruction, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra offers OrchKids. Director Dan Trahey calls OrchKids a social, music and preventative medicine program that focuses on building young musicians.

“Our idea is that we want to put a clarinet or violin in a child’s hand before they would put a gun in their hands,” said Trahey, a co-founder of the program. “We believe in democratic access to music. My belief is that instrumental music, and especially classical music, has become a luxury item of the rich, and our idea is we want to create democratic access to that music, to the performance of it, the study of it and the exposure to it.”

The program has about 900 students from five Baltimore City schools. Participants can start as early as ages 2 or 3 with ear training, identifying different instruments and listening to different types of music. In first grade they sing in choirs, play in percussion ensembles and sample playing the different instrument families. Specialization comes as students continue in the program, which started seven years ago.

The OrchKids ensembles have put on 65 performances to more than 175,000 audience members. The students attend school at higher-than-average rates in Baltimore and have elevated test scores and grades, Trahey said.

“To me, the most important thing is these kids are showing much higher levels of empathy, concern for others,” he said. “They are students you want to be around, not students you have to manage.”

Trahey even anticipates a new sub-genre coming out of their original music, a hip-hop gospel mashup.

“I think sometime very soon you’ll be able to identify the sound of the West Baltimore Symphony Orchestra,” he said.

Another program that has seen great success in uplifting Baltimore City students is New Lens, a social justice media organization that is run by its youth participants. The organization teaches videography to peers, produces videos for nonprofits and advocates through video work by focusing on social justice issues.

“There isn’t a young person that comes through our doors without some fire in their stomach about what can change in the world,” said executive director Rebecca Yenawine.

The core team, which ranges in age from 16 to 23, consist mostly of inner-city youth, Yenawine said. They make videos about a variety of issues, particularly those that affect young people of color.

“Because they are on the receiving end of policies that they don’t have a say in the creation of, they often have a unique perspective,” she said.

She’s found that those who work with New Lens graduate high school or get a GED and estimates that about 60 percent go to college. Many go into media-related fields, teaching and the nonprofit world.

At the American Visionary Art Museum in Federal Hill, Baltimore City youth have had the opportunity to decorate the exterior of one of the city’s most renowned buildings. The LeRoy Hoffberger Shining Youth/ Shining Walls program, which started in 2001, has had city students and at-risk youth create the mosaics and other art on the outside of the buildings. Starting in 2001 with the nearest school to the museum, then called Southern High School and now Digital Harbor High School, the program now works with kids in the city’s juvenile justice system.

The project has included the three-story shining mosaic that faces Key Highway, the café balcony surface and mirrored mosaic walls. The face of the building facing Federal Hill will have a green and purple Aurora Borealis in the coming months. The museum once made a list of the Top 10 most “blinged-out” buildings in the world, its co founder said.

“It’s a living social justice and physical beauty project,” said Rebecca Hoffberger, the museum’s co-founder. “They are the nicest, most appreciative kids. Almost 90 percent of the kids serving in the juvenile justice system in Baltimore City are serving for nonviolent crimes.”

Since students are learning masonry skills through the program, two construction companies have offered various trainings to participants in commercial and residential tiling.

While arts programs can help students beyond the classroom, Stuart believes art can help teach all kinds of subjects while in the classroom.

“I believe that it has the ability to engage students in a way that they normally wouldn’t feel comfortable,” she said. “I think it’s really important that we cater what they need and how they learn, and the arts have the ability to do that.”

Around the Clock

082214_i24For many years Jews in the United States and throughout the world longed for an all-cable news channel that really understood Israel. And for years, networks such as CNN, BBC, MSNBC, Fox News, France 24 and Al Jazeera have come up short in presenting Israel’s side of the story, especially when covering the Palestinian conflicts.

Now there is i24 News, which broadcasts in English, French and Arabic, working out of its modern state-of-the-art broadcast center in the ancient port area of Jaffa in Tel Aviv. It is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week, year-round, all-news operation.

i24 News became a true power in the cable-news industry with its coverage of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. The network made great use of online live-streaming and through its apps while engaging viewers via social media through the i24 News Facebook page and Twitter feed.

In covering the Gaza conflict, i24 News used its “home-field advantage” to get access to all of the key players in the region, and the i24 News’ “ground troops” were posted in Gaza and throughout all of Israel.

Launched in July 2013, the driving force behind i24 News was Swiss billionaire Patrick Drahi, who owns Altice, a multinational company specializing in telecommunications and cable networks. He has cable and satellite services throughout Europe, the Middle East (including Israel) and South America.

Like CNN, which gives us the news from a U.S. perspective, and the BBC, which offers a more European view of world news, it was Drahi’s dream to have i24 News offer, for the first time, the world as seen through the eyes of Israel.

It was former French political insider and media executive Frank Melloul who made the dream come true. Before joining i24 as CEO, Melloul was part of the creative team that launched the very successful European all-news channel France 24. This multilanguage network can be seen worldwide, including in the Baltimore-Washington area on Comcast Cable.

“I set all the international development strategy for France 24, and I learned that synergy is the key to success,” said Melloul.”This is my philosophy at i24 News.”

When Operation Protective Edge started, the savvy Melloul knew that this was an opportunity to use his talented team of anchors, reporters and technicians to cover every aspect of the conflict.

“To cover a war after less than a year on the air is not an easy thing,” he said. “The biggest challenge was to show the highest level of professionalism in such a situation, and I’m really proud of my team.  We have no reason to envy the biggest TV news channels.”

Attracting new viewers in the United States and worldwide has helped build the network’s brand, increase ratings and build loyalty to i24 News’ English, French and Arabic language channels.

“Yes, we are getting new viewers from the United States, and not only Jews,” said Melloul. “We have also been able to build extraordinary ratings in Europe, where we succeeded in overtaking Russia Today, France 24 and Al Jazeera English in the biggest countries. We can start seeing the same patterns in Africa and a stronger impact in the Arab world.

“But having a message is worthless if it is not understood,” he continued. “Multilingual broadcast are essential to the i24 News strategy. We want to target all those who consume international news channels, and that is why we must speak the language of all the people we target.”

Its creative and production staff comes from all over the world, and it is the diversity of the team that makes its programming fresh and interesting. i24 News has a staff of 250, including 150 journalists from 35 countries.

“I am proudest that i24 News is already recognized as the alternative to Al Jazeera in the Middle East,” said Melloul. “But foremost, we have managed to have in the same newsroom Jews, Muslims, Druze and Christians working together, producing the same content in order to provide the Israeli point of view in all its diversity.”

The network can be seen in more than 800 million homes throughout Europe, the Middle East, the West Indies and Africa, and viewership is growing each month. Locally, i24 News can be seen through its arrangement with Jewish Life Television, which can be seen throughout the Mid-Atlantic on Comcast as well as satellite services Dish Network and DirecTV. JLTV has committed to airing a morning news block from 10 a.m. until noon on weekdays, and it also carries a prime-time newscast Sunday through Thursday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

i24 News offers a live-streaming option from its website Also, i24 News offers free apps, which can be downloaded either at the iTunes Store or at Google Play by searching i24 News.

Recipe for a Heated Competition

Tournament founder Erik Folkart interviews chefs Yaini Livaditis of Basta Pasta and Nina Swartz of AIDA Bistro during the competition. (Photos Provided)

Tournament founder Erik Folkart interviews chefs Yaini Livaditis of Basta Pasta and Nina Swartz of AIDA Bistro during the competition. (Photos Provided)

Now in its fourth summer  of fierce competition, the annual Mason Dixon Master Chef Tournament has enjoyed ever-increasing popularity, and two individuals involved since the tournament’s inception played a big part in creating that success. By day, tournament founder  Erik Folkart is an award-winning marketing associate for Sysco, but his spring and summer evenings are filled with planning and hosting the  all-summer-long event. Folkart has grown the Iron Chef-style live competition into an exciting annual affair that allows chefs to showcase their talents and food lovers to watch and interact with the chefs, their teams and even the judges.

Appropriately, Folkart conceived the idea for the tournament over a family dinner in 2009. Karen Folkart, Erik’s sister-in-law and now partner in running the event, recalled, “I think it started something like, “Karen, I have an idea … and it grew from there into the first tournament, which we launched in 2010 with 32 chefs. “I credit him with making the tournament a success,” she continued. “He’s a person who makes things happen.”Fuel for the idea came from Erik Folkart’s passion for the food industry and his desire to highlight the quality organizations and chefs with whom he works. The tournament provides a platform where chefs can showcase their skills and talents and also to introduce new products to the public in a creative way.

Folkart is hands-on for all aspects of the event, including set up, clean up and as master of ceremonies.

“What I enjoy the most is the evolution of this concept and the feedback we get from the live audience on what they enjoyed most or what wowed them,” Folkart said. “Also hearing from the chefs about how the tournament has given them a new perspective on how they cook — and inspired them to be more critical in their approach and ultimately to be better chefs — is very rewarding.”

Baltimore native Mitchell Platt, a longtime Folkart friend and tournament judge, has been involved with the competition since its beginning four years ago. Though he holds a degree in business management from Towson University, Platt was drawn into the club management industry by positive experiences at Woodholme Country Club, where he worked for 30 years. He started as a busboy in 1983 while in high school and worked his way to general manager in just 10 years.

It was at Woodholme where Platt and Folkart met, when Folkart was the club’s snack bar manager and Platt was his supervisor. Now manager at the prestigious Cosmo Club in Washington, D.C., Platt ensures high-quality cuisine for its elite members that include Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, presidents and other notables.

Platt finds great fulfillment in his role as judge for the Mason Dixon tournament.

“I love seeing the creativity and hard work that the chefs put into the competition,” he said. “Baltimore’s culinary scene has dramatically improved over the last 10 years, and there are a lot of talented chefs within our community. The Mason Dixon tournament is one of a kind for Baltimore chefs.”

Laughing, he added, “And most importantly, I love a good meal.”

Folkart and Platt, both members of the Chizuk Amuno congregation, credit their faith as a primary guiding factor in both their personal and professional lives.

“I would have to say my faith has a big impact on my overall positive outlook,” Folkart remarked. “The Jewish people throughout the millennia have always been optimistic and resilient, and I believe I share that same drive to be the best I can be and to not get discouraged by adversity or hard work. I have used that faith through my education as well as my professional career.”

Both men also prescribe to a strong religious foundation as the basis for community.

“The foundation [Judaism] provides us and our kids, from both a cultural and religious perspective, has helped guide us morally,” said Platt. “It not only fosters a sense of community but teaches us the importance of responsibility to more than just ourselves.”

082214_chef2Platt serves on the JCC board of directors and has also served on the Jewish Big Brother/Big Sister and Sports Legends at Camden Yards/Babe Ruth Museum boards. In addition, Platt works with the American Institute of Wine and Food’s Days of Taste program that educates school children about cooking and natural foods, including a field trip to a farm and hands-on food preparation.

Folkart shares his energies with local charities too and donates a portion of the Mason Dixon Master Chef Tournament proceeds each year — in the first year to Moveable Feast and now to Meals on Wheels.

And Now, Monty Python!

By now it’s a well-worn clichè. When you ask Baltimoreans where they went to school, they assume you are asking about high school, not college.

When he was a student at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community High School, Evan Margolis, a 2008 graduate, had such admiration for the school’s theater department that six years ago, while studying at University of Maryland, College Park, he founded the Beth Tfiloh Community Theatre so that he could keep coming back. Much of his enthusiasm, said Margolis, was due to the talent of BT’s award-winning artistic director, Diane Smith.

“We [Margolis and his peers] had such a great experience working with Diane that a lot of us wanted to keep doing it.”

At first, said Margolis, the project was just for BT alumni, but when Margolis’ father, Paul, joined the group’s 2009 production of “West Side Story,” participants decided to open it up to anyone who wanted to audition. Currently, Margolis, Smith and a cast that includes BT alumni, an alumni parent, BT staff, college students and local theater professionals are preparing for the run of Monty Python’s musical comedy “Spamalot,” which opens with a Sunday matinee on Aug. 17 and includes evening performances on Aug. 18, 20 and 21.

Directed by Smith, the cast stars BT parent Paul Margolis as King Arthur, Sarah Miller as The Lady of the Lake, Josh Margolis ‘12 as Sir Lancelot, Will Meister as Sir Galahad, Will Poxen as Sir Robin, Dylan Margolis as Sir Bedevere, Asher Varon ‘13 as Patsy and Amanda Dickson as The Historian.

For Smith, who has served as artistic director of BT’s schools and congregation for the past 10 years and is also artistic director for the nonprofit Children’s Playhouse of Maryland, working with the BTCT has been a wonderful experience.

“It’s great to have such a diverse group,” she said. “They take it seriously, but there are no egos. The performers who are Jewish are so grateful that we are here, since many of them could not be part of a show that ran and rehearsed on Shabbos. What’s also nice is that the whole community supports us and really appreciates that we are here.”

Created with flickr slideshow.


Smith said that about half of the cast members are semiprofessional or working toward a career in the theater, while the other half are performing simply for the love of it.

BT alumna Kari Davis, who graduated in 2007, said returning to her high school to perform with the company felt “a bit weird at first. It has been a while since I’ve done a show.”

Davis will begin her second year of medical school at the University of Maryland this fall. Now that she’s immersed in the production though, Davis, who sings, dances and acts in “Spamalot,” said it feels great to be back on stage working with Smith and the rest of the cast. In fact, Davis noted, this summer will be the last time for the foreseeable future that she will have the time to indulge her love of musical theater.

“I hadn’t seen the play before, but I was familiar with the music and, of course, with Monty Python,” she said. “The show is hilarious.”

Will Meister, 20, who plays Sir Galahad, is a performing arts major at CCBC’s Essex campus and acts with various companies in and around Baltimore. This is Meister’s first time being part of a BTCT production, but he has worked with Smith previously and knows the Margolises from Cappies (the Critics and Awards Program), an organization that trains high school theater and journalism students to become theater critics. Meister said performing in “Spamalot” has been a lot of fun.

Smith assured parents that the BTCT version of the play is PG-13. “We’ve toned it down a bit,” she said, adding that “it’s crazy silly humor. ‘Spamalot’ spoofs on everything and takes the humor as far as it can go. You will see high-quality performances and hear some great voices.”

To purchase tickets online, visit or pay at the door. Tickets can be reserved in advance by calling 410-413-2436 or emailing

Interested in getting involved? Actors or aspiring actors of school age and up are welcome to audition for future productions. For information, email

Missing Peace

Mary Jane Oelke as Madeleine Albright and Percy W. Thomas as Yasser Arafat deliver a heated exchange in “Fourteen Days in July,” a dramatization of tense negotiations during the Camp David Israeli-Palestinian peace talks of 2000, based on the memoir of Ambassador Dennis Ross, “The Missing Peace.” (Marc Apter)

Mary Jane Oelke as Madeleine Albright and Percy W. Thomas as Yasser Arafat deliver a heated exchange in “Fourteen Days in July,” a dramatization of tense negotiations during the Camp David Israeli-Palestinian peace talks of 2000, based on the memoir of Ambassador Dennis Ross, “The Missing Peace.”
(Marc Apter)

Tense negotiations, strong personalities and psychological drama are reimagined in the new play “Fourteen Days in July,” written by Lewis Schrager, based on Ambassador Dennis Ross’ memoir “The Missing Peace,” the account of his participation in the Clinton administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace talks from 1992 to 2000. The premiere is Aug. 15 and runs for two weekends as part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

Schrager, in collaboration over several months with director and festival founder Barry Feinstein, distilled events from the intense two-week
period at Camp David in 2000 into to a two-hour play packed with 11 powerful characters — Ehud Barak, Yasser Arafat, Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright and President Bill Clinton among them, and, of course, Ambassador Ross.

“One of the reasons I wrote it is that I was frustrated with the pace of negotiations,” said Schrager, who is a physician and vice president of scientific affairs at Aeras, a nonprofit that develops tuberculosis vaccines. He also teaches during intercession at Johns Hopkins University and said, “I write in my spare time, it’s my therapy.” He has also written books and other plays.

Schrager admits that with the current events in the Middle East, the play has taken on a greater significance in terms of the timing of its production, but he is not surprised the story of seemingly impossible peace negotiations has been, and is, still relevant.

“The reason I think this play is very important is because the Camp David negotiations resulted in a proposed settlement. That is what peace looks like,” Schrager asserted. “It’s not a mystery. That is as good as it’s going to get. And what you need is leadership on the part of the Israelis and Palestinians to get back to where we were in 2000.”

Schrager believes the facts of the agreement “put on the table in 2000” have been forgotten by many people, including government leaders, journalists and even the public. He is an educator at heart and believes people learn best if content is engaging and entertaining, not didactic; he hopes to achieve that with his play. It’s also important to him to remain objective in his role as playwright, he said, regarding the political content of the story as well as a great respect he holds for Ross as a trusted politician and a close friend.

“It is an interesting experience to have a Sunday afternoon basketball practice interrupted by a phone call by Yasser Arafat or Yitzchak Rabin.” recalled Schrager of time spent with Ross playing on Rockville’s Kol Shalom Congregation basketball team, where they are both still members. “But that was the nature of the game. We’ve been friends ever since, and I cherish that friendship,” which began about 20 years ago when Ross was actively involved in the peace negotiations, he added.

When Schrager submitted his play to the Baltimore Playwrights Festival it wasn’t initially chosen for production. Feinstein and wife Kathleen Barber’s Theatrical Mining Company chose some of the stronger plays that weren’t selected and experimented with readings and improvisation to develop them further. That process culminated with an evening in which a critical scene of each play was performed. Schrager’s script was chosen from that process, though it continued to evolve before its final version.

“Lew [Schrager] was trying to get all 14 days in July into the play,” recalled Feinstein of an earlier script version during their collaboration. “All he really had to do was get the essential elements and get the power of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians and how prescient that 2000 summit was … and I’m not giving away anything by saying [the summit] didn’t succeed, and Lew has captured the tragedy of that moment.”

Schrager pored over Ross’s book and the history, beginning well before the Camp David negotiations for about a year. Then he had to “figure out how you take a situation that has about 36 or 38 different negotiators,” he said, “and boil it down to a few representative negotiators, demonstrative of the negotiation process, but also [include] the personal stakes and the psychological drama” that played out during the two weeks of arduous negotiations.

Feinstein chose the play for how the important historical content and characters were powerfully translated to stage. It’s important, he said, for people to understand where and why those leaders missed and what they didn’t fully comprehend of the negotiation process. “Sometimes hate wins out over any kind of rational thinking. Hate and revenge and the need to make things right, when the cost is so great.”

Feinstein continued, “That’s what theater does, it gives you a catharsis — the writer, the actor — but the audience gets to be right in there and have all those feelings and then talk about them.”

Ross will attend the Aug. 23 performance and will participate in a post-show discussion. “Fourteen Days in July” will be performed in an intimate black-box 44-seat theater on the Notre Dame campus, so the audience will feel the explosiveness of the content, Feinstein said.

“A great play does that for you,” Feinstein added. “Sometimes you walk out [of the theater] and you can’t get the characters, the ideas that were expressed, the drama that came through, you can’t get them out of your mind, you have to talk to people about it.”

“Fourteen Days in July”

  • August 15-17, 22-24 and 29-31. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m.
  • Former Ambassador Dennis Ross will attend the Aug. 23 performance and participate in a post-show discussion.
  • LeClerc Hall on the campus of Notre Dame of Maryland University4701 N. Charles Baltimore.
  • Tickets $10 here.
  • Tickets and more information can be obtained at or call 410-294-8956.

Begging for S’more

My grandchildren reminded me that Aug. 10 is National S’mores Day. I couldn’t disappoint them, so we decided to have an August S’mores weekend.

I prepared by looking up the history of this uniquely American treat. After all, it could be a “Jeopardy” question someday. The name for s’mores originated when people asked for “some more” of any sweet dessert. History says this particular triple delight of graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows was invented by the Girl Scouts in the early 1900s. It was a perfect treat for roasting over campfires. Since the marshmallows get gooey and eating gets messy, s’mores are especially suited to outdoor dining.

The first written recipe appeared in the 1927 Girl Scouts cookbook. Like many origin stories, there is debate over the “truthiness” of the story. But no one can quibble over the level of yumminess: On a scale of 1 to 10, s’mores are an 11 for any age.

Think of having a “s’mores bar.” Use different flavors of chocolate, slip in some thin banana and strawberry slices. Or add bananas and peanut butter. And for a savory treat, add savory crackers, thinly sliced grape tomatoes, fresh basil and small mozarella balls.

Since our culture now craves instant gratification any place at any time, there are now ways to makes’mores without a campfire. You can use a toaster oven, stove top or microwave. The magic ingredient is those gooey well-toasted marshmallows. S’mores have morphed their way onto elegant restaurant menus with simple ingredients that transform into creative desserts, drinks and delicious memories.


Tips & Tricks
• Look for square marshmallows made just for s’mores.
• Store marshmallows in the freezer, cut with scissors dipped in hot water. If they become hard, place in a plastic baggie with a large slice of fresh bread for a few days.
• Don’t be afraid to try assorted chocolate squares, even those filled with caramel.

Ilene Spector is a local freelance writer.

Love: Jewish Baltimore Style

Sometimes, Lauren Katz says, she feels like the “only single person in the universe.”

Sometimes, Lauren Katz says, she feels like the “only single person in the universe.”

After more than a decade of dating in Jewish Baltimore, Lauren Katz is feeling discouraged.

The 30-year-old Owings Mills native has lived in Baltimore her whole life, not withstanding a few years away at college, and she’s had her fair share of experiences dating both Jews and non-Jews in the community.

“I feel like I’ve dated them all,” Katz said, though she has made an effort to avoid friends’ exes and has tried to stay away from men she’s known since they were in middle school together. Now that most of her friends are married and starting families, Katz admitted she sometimes feels like “the only single person in the universe.”

But she isn’t. Matchmaker Mashe Katz (no relation to Lauren) can testify to that.

Katz, who was interviewed in the weeks leading up to Tu B’Av — the minor holiday (on Aug.11 this year) that Jewish tradition for centuries has associated with love and marriage, said she has always had a gift for matchmaking. She’s been making matches since her teens. But she is humble about her talent.

“The One above is the true matchmaker. We are just his emissaries,” said Katz. “It is known that 40 days before a child is born, his match is called out in heaven.”

Katz’s friend, fellow matchmaker Shulamit Gartenhaus, feels similarly.

“I have four kids and when they had to find matches, they didn’t have a hard time. When my youngest got married 13 years ago, I felt thankful to God,” she said.

Aware that not everyone has an easy time finding a mate, Gartenhaus decided to provide God with some help. She said she feels sorry for women who are single and watching their friends get married and have babies.

“There was a need [for a matchmaker] in the community,” said Gartenhaus. “When you make a match you feel like a million bucks. Not only are you creating a new Jewish family, you are also strengthening the Jewish community.”

Not everyone uses a matchmaker, of course, and many in the non-Orthodox segments of the community consider matchmaking a relic from another era. But Tammy Tilson, a psychotherapist in private practice who is also a professional dating coach, said that when it comes to finding a serious relationship, many people need help.

While Gartenhaus and Katz work mainly with young adults, Tilson’s clients are primarily divorced men and women trying to negotiate the singles scene after being out of it for quite some time. In the age of the Internet, dating norms have changed dramatically.

“Sometimes people are reluctant to start [using] online dating sites,” said Tilson. “It may not seem completely natural, but it’s the way of the world and the best tool out there.”

“Sometimes people  are reluctant to start  [using] online dating sites.  It may not seem  completely natural,  but it’s the way  of the world and the  best tool out there.”

“Sometimes people are reluctant to start [using] online dating sites. It may not seem completely natural, but it’s the way of the world and the best tool out there.”

Digital dating
Since JDate first burst onto the singles scene in 1997, online dating sites have cropped up like weeds. In the Jewish world alone, there are countless websites for people of every denomination with clever names such as, and changed its name recently — it’s now called JWed. Many Jewish singles also rely on dating sites that aren’t limited to Jewish singles such as, and

Lauren Katz first got her feet wet with online dating eight years ago when she returned home from college to find that her mother had created an online profile for her on JDate with the headline, “Mother looking for daughter.” Right off the bat, Katz started dating a man she met on the site.

“We dated for four months,” she said. Katz was so impressed with her mother’s matchmaking skills that when she created a paid profile on J-Date three years later, she did so with her mother’s help.

This time, Katz — who would prefer to marry a Jewish guy but has had trouble meeting Jewish men she likes — quickly got a message from a non-Jewish man who was “looking for a Jewish woman.” The couple dated for more than two years before eventually calling it quits.

It’s no secret that mothers can be the best matchmakers for their children. Just ask the founders of, “where Moms do the matchmaking.” Brother-and-sister team Danielle and Brad Weisberg launched the website in 2010 after their own mother convinced them that when it came to matching her son with a “nice Jewish girl,” there was no better marketer than his mother.

Yet, like Gartenhaus, who said her clients, many of whom also use Orthodox dating sites, appreciate “the human touch,” Tilson said the Internet is no substitute for the coaching she can provide.

“Finding a mate is like finding a job. Your [online] profile is your resume,” she explained. “I help people write their profiles and choose their photos. We look at their dating history, and we talk about dating strategies. A lot of people don’t know why they are not successful.”

One key to success, the matchmakers all agreed, is flexibility. Many singles, especially men, place a premium on the appearance of a potential match.

“Looks are important,” said Katz, who also noted that the pool of eligible single men in the Orthodox community is much smaller than the pool of eligible women.”

Gartenhaus said she has one client who is 64 and never married.

“She says, ‘I wish I hadn’t been so picky when I was young.’ So what if he’s a little nerdy?” said Gartenhaus. “Nerds make good husbands.”

Tilson has seen the same phenomenon among her clients.

“Some people have unrealistic expectations. I say if you really want a relationship, it’s not just about attraction,” she explained. “Dating is more complex in your 40s. You have to look at your lives, your kids, your schedules, your location. Do they fit together? There are a lot of good people out there. You have to look outside the box and be open-minded. Perfection doesn’t exist.”

A foot in the door
In the two years he has lived in Baltimore, Sammy Zimmerman, a 32-year-old CPA and law student, has found that it’s been challenging to break into the Orthodox community and difficult to find women willing to look beyond the surface when it comes to seeking a mate.

“It is not a progressive community,” he said. “There’s a lot of labeling, and some people are close-minded. What I find is that before girls get to know you, they’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s too modern,’ or they have to follow the rabbi or check with their parents or their friends to get clearance. I know people say there are a lot of women looking, but they’re not accessible. If they really wanted to meet someone, they would be more flexible. They should focus on the positives — we all have good qualities.”

Going about the dating game with a positive attitude, said Tilson, is important.

“You have to stay positive and be able to deal with rejection. No matter who we are, we have been on both sides of the fence,” she said. “Online dating is a bit of a game. You can’t take it too seriously. Lots of people are online talking and dating lots of people. That triggers tons of anxiety. You’re vulnerable, you’ve put yourself out there. I try to empower and support them so they feel positive about the future and put their best foot forward.”

Katz encourages the men and women she matches to go out more than once. Generally, she said, after the first couple of dates, clients will call Katz to discuss how the date went. After the third or fourth date, she said, “they know if they’re not getting anywhere.”

On the other hand, if a relationship is progressing after the third or fourth date, Katz encourages them to continue seeing each other and to call if they need her assistance.

Both Gartenhaus and Katz said they don’t charge a fee for their services. However, if a successful match comes from their efforts, the family gives “a nice gift.” Sometimes, said Gartenhaus, families ask their rabbis what they should pay.

“Each side pays something,” she said. “It could be a smaller gift like a serving plate or it could be $1,000 from each family.”

Tilson’s date-coaching fees vary depending upon what services she provides.

“I charge about $100 hourly, but I also offer packages,” she said. “For example, I might write a profile, help them role-play how to act on a date, go shopping with them. Some people don’t have time to screen thousands of [online] profiles. I might do that for them. Lots of people have social anxiety; a lot of what I do is to build their confidence. I help them to pace the relationship appropriately so it develops from online to offline. I can hold their hand every step of the way if they want that.”

Plenty of people
That kind of support hasn’t been necessary for 25-year-old Andrew Collins of Baltimore. He said he’s had no trouble meeting women to date in his hometown.

“For me, there are plenty of people to meet,” he said. “It’s a social town, lots of bars, clubs, music.”

And although Collins, a home loan consultant, is Jewish and grew up attending Beth El Congregation, he cannot remember ever dating a Jewish woman.

“There is no conscious reason,” he said. “I hang out with Jewish girls and girls who are not Jewish. Most of my friends are Jewish. Whether a girl is Jewish or not is one of the last things I care about. As long as she is a good person.”

Collins is also not a fan of online dating and doesn’t like the idea of being fixed up by friends or family. He acknowledges that these practices work for others. For example, Collins’ sister recently married a man she met on JDate.

Do his parents mind that he doesn’t date Jewish women?

“I think my parents feel about the same way I do,” he said. “My mom would probably prefer I marry a Jewish girl, but, at the end of the day, she really only cares if I’m happy and that [my prospective wife is] a good person.”

Chana Bernstein has given up on online dating sites, preferring to meet people through family and friends.

Chana Bernstein has given up on online dating sites, preferring to meet people through family and friends.

Chana Bernstein, 30, a marketing professional with Living Social, no longer uses matchmakers or online dating sites. Matchmakers haven’t really “gotten” her, and those she has met through online dating sites were disappointing. She has dated a lot since moving to Baltimore three years ago but said she prefers to meet people through friends and family.

Bernstein is reluctant to label herself when it comes to her level of Jewish observance but said she is somewhere between Orthodox and modern Orthodox.

“I would say I have my feet in both the religious and secular worlds, and I straddle them successfully,” she said.

Bernstein, who was once engaged, said she is looking for a man who is “mature, has gotten his life together and is goal-oriented with a stable personality. Otherwise, he can just be someone I enjoy being with.”

She keeps an open mind.

“I won’t know until I meet him,” she said. “I think I could mesh with a lot of people. One of our rabbis gave a talk at a Shabbos meal recently and I liked what he said: ‘There’s no harm in going out; it’s not a promise to get married. Just go out, you’re not losing anything and you might gain a lot. That person may surprise you.’”

Tu B’Av: What’s it all about?
“Tu B’Av is a minor festival in the Jewish calendar and takes place on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av,” said Rabbi Deborah Wechsler of Chizuk Amuno Congregation.

“The most popular story about Tu B’Av is probably from the Talmud. On that day, unmarried girls were said to go out into the vineyards in borrowed white dresses and find mates. The dresses were borrowed, so that the poor girls who couldn’t afford new dresses wouldn’t feel embarrassed,” said Wechsler. “The only practical way it is observed today is that the tachanun, the penitential prayers, are omitted from the service on that date.”

If people would like to bring Tu B’av back, suggests Wechsler, “they should do a mitzvah and make a shidduch between two people without mates on that day.”

Staff reporter Heather Norris contributed to this report.