‘A Unique Space’

070414_meyerhoffLong before he was booking A-list comedians and musicians at one of Baltimore’s premier venues, Toby Blumenthal could be spotted passing out flyers for upcoming concerts in Northern Virginia.

But for Blumenthal, then a high school student, these weren’t just flyers. He knew that an agent who booked a tour for an artist connected with a promoter, who then found the proper date and venue to hold the show. When those pieces came together and tickets went on sale, people like Blumenthal would hit the streets on behalf of the promoters.

“I was handing out flyers and getting them around town and I really dug deep into who was presenting those concerts that I was handing out flyers for,” Blumenthal, 35, said.

He would later work for that promoter, forge relationships with agents and other promoters and work his way into booking major events at large venues.

Blumenthal is the director of rentals and presentations at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a position he’s held for seven years.

“My core responsibility is handling the use of this building and really focusing on reducing the number of dark days,” he said. “The orchestra plans their schedule a year-and-a-half in advance and then I’m handed the calendar, and basically my job is to fill those dates.”

Blumenthal brings about 50 to 60 events a year to the venue, including concerts, comedy shows, private events such as The Associated’s casino night, corporate functions, galas and fundraisers. During Blumenthal’s time at the venue, the Meyerhoff has hosted comedian giants George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, Jon Stewart, Louis CK and more. Comedian Kevin Hart set a new record for the venue, which holds approximately 2,450 people, selling out six shows in three days in 2012.

As a huge music fan, Blumenthal has facilitated a wealth of artists performing at the venue, including Van Morrison, Tony Bennett, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Jeff Tweedy, David Byrne and St. Vincent and Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band.

Stevenson University’s Baltimore Speaker Series has brought President Bill Clinton, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and many other iconic figures to the venue.

Blumenthal said it’s his relationship with promoters and agents that help him score big acts.

“Toby is a big reason [we work at the Meyerhoff]. He’s aggressive without being intrusive,” said Seth Hurwitz, chairman of I.M.P. Productions, the company that owns the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. and books Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia and the Lincoln Theatre in Washington. “Toby will always come to us first and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to make this happen. Would you like to work on it with me?’ It makes us feel sort of an obligation to make us work with him first.”

Connections with Hurwitz and many others in the industry go back to college for Blumenthal. As a Towson University student, he worked alongside the promoter he passed out flyers for in high school, All Good Presents co-founder Tim Walther, helping out with music festivals and presenting shows at Towson’s Recher Theatre with Walther. Blumenthal also booked concerts for the university with artists such as Outkast, Bob Dylan and Ben Harper.

After college, he went to work for Cellar Door at the Nissan Pavilion in Northern Virginia as the assistant to the booking manager, working on concerts from Baltimore down to North Carolina. Cellar Door is now part of Live Nation and the Nissan Pavilion is now known as Jiffy Lube Live.

From there, Blumenthal came up to Baltimore, his wife Hope’s hometown, to work at Hippodrome after its reopening in 2004. He was working in a similar capacity, booking the venue’s non-Broadway shows and private functions. When the position opened up at the Meyerhoff, he moved to his current position.

“It’s a unique space that can do pretty much anything,” Blumenthal said of the Meyerhoff.

His current job has allowed him to create some of his career’s more magical moments with popular musicians performing alongside the orchestra. Previous collaborations include singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne and one of Blumenthal’s favorite musicians, Trey Anastasio from Phish.

Upon hearing that Anastasio was interested in working with a symphony while Phish was on hiatus, Blumenthal reached out to the singer and guitarist and spent about six months trying to make it happen, which it did in 2009.

“At times, we would talk once a week,” he said. “It took a solid year to find a specific date that worked for everybody, and it was pretty amazing when it finally happened.”

Blumenthal, who listens to an eclectic array of local, regional, national and international music, also had the opportunity to bring to life music by another of his favorite artists, the Grateful Dead, by spearheading the world premiere of “Dead Symphony No. 6,” which Blumenthal first heard on CD.

The next musician-symphony collaboration is on July 17 with Ben Folds, who will performing his new concerto as well as some of his popular songs with the symphony.

“The organization really is all about exploring the greatest things out there regardless of what genre they may fall into, and Toby’s been a tremendous asset because of the connections and experience he brings for the popular music side of things,” said Matt Spivey, vice president of artistic operations at the Meyerhoff. “He also has deep connection and understanding of the orchestra … and he really bridges that gap for us in a lot of ways.”

And Blumenthal continues to try to find ways to bridge that gap and attract a younger audience to the venue. This summer, the Meyerhoff will host a concert of video game music, outdoor concerts before Beethoven shows and there’s talk of developing new events to bring more intergenerational audiences to the venue.

“I feel like, here, this is the community’s venue,” he said. “So, we want everybody to feel welcome when coming to this building.”

Sad Ending


(Courtesy of “The Internet’s Own Boy: The story of Aaron Swartz”)

Chicago native Aaron Swartz was both an idealist and a realist. The Internet prodigy had the highest aspirations, but he also realized that felons weren’t allowed to work in the White House.

Swartz’s brief, brilliant life, and the seemingly noncontroversial principles for which he was persecuted by the government, are the provocative subject of Brian Knappenberger’s detailed and often infuriating documentary, “The Internet’s Own Boy.” It opened late last month and is also available on VOD (video on demand).

The unrelenting pressure of a two-year federal prosecution and the increasing likelihood of incarceration almost certainly factored in the 26-year-old Swartz’s suicide in Brooklyn in January 2013. Just two days earlier, the hardline U.S. Attorney had refused to accept a plea agreement without prison time.

“There was a looming trial,” Knappenberger said. “I think Aaron was scared to lose his physical freedom. I think he was immensely frightened that he’d be labeled as a felon and all the consequences of that, which really means he can’t do any of the political things that he wanted.”

The impression one gets from the film and the director is that Swartz grew up in an affluent, observant Jewish household in which technology and thinking for one’s self were emphasized.

“I think his family thought and argued a lot about technology and politics,” Knappenberger said in a recent interview. “It seemed to me a kitchen table that was constantly engaged in issues of technology, and you could see where Aaron got his propensity to dig in and question.”

“The Internet’s Own Boy” features poignant interviews with Aaron’s parents, Robert and Susan, and his brothers, Ben and Noah, as well as home movies and photographs.

“I really couldn’t have done the film without Aaron’s family,” Knappenberger said. “It took a lot of courage for them to open up to me. Particularly so soon. I made this film in a year, which by documentary standards is just incredibly fast.”

The family, with the exception of Aaron’s mother, who was dealing with some physical issues, attended the Sundance Film Festival premiere of “The Internet’s Own Boy.” While the Swartzes unambiguously support the film, one observer at Sundance noted that the family — devastated by the government’s abuse of power and protective of Aaron’s reputation and legacy — responded cautiously to journalists.

Swartz was a prodigy who adopted and mastered computer skills at an early age and within a few years had earned the respect of established Internet developers. By his late teens, he had co-developed and sold the popular online forum and community Reddit.

“That [2006] sale to [publishing conglomerate] Conde Nast makes him a very rich 19-year-old,” Knappenberger said. “And then he takes this turn to social justice and turns his back on the Silicon Valley start-up culture that he saw, it seems to me, as a machine for making money.”

Aaron’s growing activism led to efforts to increase the free online availability of court records and medical and scientific research. For the latter project, he downloaded an enormous number of articles through MIT’s network from the academic database JSTOR with the intention of spotlighting the private, for-profit control of publicly funded and created information.

Although the U.S. Attorney conceded that Swartz had no plans to profit from the mass download, he resolved to send a message and filed charges of wire fraud, computer fraud, theft of information from a computer and recklessly damaging a computer. And so began Swartz’s two-year nightmare.

“He was certainly willing to put himself on the line,” said Knappenberger, whose previous films include “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists.” “He was willing to kick up a little dust. I feel like I have a perspective on this having met so many hackers and activists and seen so many approaches. In the sense of wanting to change the world, it seemed to me he was pretty comfortably within the boundaries of the law, all things considered. So it’s particularly bizarre they would go after him for two years.”

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

Easy to Digest

Customers line up outside the Cofizz store on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, where everything on the menu is 5 shekels. (Cofizz)

Customers line up outside the Cofizz store on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, where everything on the menu is 5 shekels.

Omelet sandwich: 5 shekels. Iced coffee: 5 shekels. Tuna sandwich: 5 shekels. Fresh-squeezed orange juice: 5 shekels. Cheese bureka: 5 shekels.

There’s plenty more on the Cofizz menu, but you get the idea.

Dani Mizrahi and Amir Amshalm, two Israeli men in their early 30s, asked themselves: Why not launch a take-out food joint in busy neighborhoods around Jerusalem where everything — and that means everything — goes for 5 shekels, or about $1.50. They’d seen the concept take off in Tel Aviv, where those running a chain called Cofix keep busy feeding the local populace with all kinds of equally inexpensive fare.

“It worked there, so we thought, why not here?” said Mizrahi. “But here in Jerusalem being kosher is a very important thing.” Appropriately, then, Cofizz adheres to the high Israeli kosher standards of Mahadrin and, in several locations, Badatz.

Visitors to Jerusalem can keep their eyes peeled for the telltale bright red Cofizz signs sprouting up around town this year. In January, the partners rolled out their first Cofizz at 14 Ben Yehuda St. and now have added two more on Jaffa Street, just steps from the light rail.

The emergence of Cofizz’s cheap eats is music to the ears of Jerusalemites, who this year are looking at average rents for three-bedroom apartments — the typical choice for families — of 4,633 shekels ($1,351) outside the city center and 7,332 shekels ($2,135) inside. Average salaries for Jerusalem residents, meanwhile, hover just above the 6,000-shekel ($1,750) per-month level.

“We are in this business not only to make money,” Mizrahi said. “We also want to help people make it.”

By July, Mizrahi and Amshalm are planning on opening locations in the Machane Yehuda market (otherwise known as the “shuk”), and other sites are planned for Haifa, Rehovot and Kfar Saba. “We are projecting a total of nine [stores] by mid-summer,” said Mizrahi. “But 50 is really our [long-term] number.”

Mizrahi, who said he doesn’t “like to see people paying 100 shekels for coffee and a sandwich,” said that “everyone comes to us, lawyers and office workers, everybody.”

Based on a recent visit to the Ben Yehuda Street location, Cofizz customers applaud the idea of 5-shekel dining, but they enjoy more than just the price.

“It’s cheap,” said Jane Bizan, who lives and works nearby. “But it’s not just the prices. The fresh orange juice is really good and so is the Bulgarian cheese sandwich.” Standing in line behind Bizan was another Jerusalemite, Eran Karnicli, who after thinking it over for a second or two said, “For your money, you do get good value, and the service is very good too.”

Also on the menu — which notes the 5-shekel price in red after each item, despite the lack other prices — is a variety sandwiches, such as the internationally beloved focaccia in a choice of four different flavors. There are no less than 10 different types of coffee, including espresso, frappuccino, and Americano. But of all the coffees, it’s the cappuccino that’s the runaway favorite at the Ben Yehuda site of Cofizz, according to a server there named Lilach. And the most popular lunch fare? The veggie focaccia, she reports, handily beating out the tuna sandwich.

At these prices, how can Mizrahi and Amshalm even hope to turn a profit?

“Oh, we do make money,” Mizrahi said with a laugh. “We serve 3,000 people a day and on Ben Yehuda, 4,000, so we buy everything in bulk.”

The store is also extremely accessible, opening at 6 a.m., serving until 11:00 most nights and back in business on Saturday night after Shabbat ends — when there are already scores of customers in line.

“I can get a sandwich and an iced coffee for 10 shekels,” Navah Bargeva, one of the self-proclaimed Cofizz regulars, said with a smile. “That’s so much better than anywhere else.”

Four Questions for Jeffrey Rosen

Jeffrey Rosen is proud that the BSL is now considered an elite league. (Provided)

Jeffrey Rosen is proud that the BSL is now considered an elite league.

Mark down the date: Friday, June 20, 2014. It was the day that the world realized that Israel had become a force in the world of professional basketball. Former Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv head coach David Blatt, who led the yellow and blue to both the 2014 Euroleague and Israeli Basketball Super League championships, was hired as the new bench boss of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

What an amazing season, as Maccabi TA won the Euroleague title May 18 in an exciting 96-86 overtime win over Real Madrid in Milan. But they still had to face defending BSL defending champion Maccabi Haifa in a two-game playoff. That also ended in another overtime victory, 84-82, on June 11.

Meanwhile, for Jeffrey Rosen, the owner of defending champions Maccabi Haifa, it was a tough loss to take. But he knows the most important thing for fans worldwide to remember is that the BSL has come into its own as one of Europe’s most elite basketball leagues.

Rosen has made the team from northern Israel into a global brand as the 2012-13 BSL champions. A resident of Aventura, Fla., Rosen has brought Maccabi Haifa to the United States, where last year they completed a successful preseason NBA tour against the Phoenix Suns, the Detroit Pistons and the Memphis Grizzlies.

Haifa management also helps produce the English-language “Inside Israeli Basketball” show, which has been broadcast on American cable networks and is available on the Internet worldwide.

Rosen is the owner and chairman of Triangle Financial Services, LLC, a Florida-based sports marketing, media and management firm. His passion for professional basketball in Israel has not gone unnoticed.

More potential ownership groups are looking to invest in the BSL, and the most recent entry was the group who purchased Hapoel Migdal Jerusalem in 2013. The group is headed by 32-year-old Internet businessman Ori Allon, and it includes New York Knicks superstar Amar’e Stoudemire and Eyal Chomski, who owns one of Israel’s biggest and most successful advertising agencies. Then for good measure they added U.S.-based Arn Tellem, who is widely recognized as one of the most influential and respected sports agents in the world.

Because of Rosen’s promotion of Israel basketball and the longtime success of rival Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, it suddenly seems like owning a team in the BSL is a wise sports investment.

Rosen, though, is not only involved in basketball. He was an original investor in the Israel Baseball League and has emerged as a leader in a group seeking to restore professional baseball to Israel after the failed attempt of 2007.

Just before a much-needed vacation after the BSL championship series, Rosen spoke to the JT about a number of sports-related issues.

JT: Another outstanding year but a tough ending. Can you reflect on how far Maccabi Haifa has come under your ownership?
Rosen: Despite falling just short of back-to-back championships, I’m extremely proud of the team’s accomplishments and the progress our organization has made over the past seven years. We went from a second-division team in the first season in 2007 and were promoted to the Premiere League in just one season. Our Maccabi Haifa team has earned five finals appearances (three Israeli League finals and two State Cup finals) in the past six seasons, including winning the team’s first championship, in 2012-13, in the franchise’s 60-year history. Maccabi Haifa has become a global brand, playing six NBA teams in the past four seasons. We also have our “Inside Israeli Basketball” TV show, which has been on the air in the United States for five seasons and has earned two New York Emmy Award nominations.

The Israeli Basketball Super League has attracted new owners and top players. Are you pleased with the growth of the league both in interest as well as the talent level?
The Israeli Basketball Super League’s talent and ownership is definitely on the rise since I became an owner back in 2007. Many of the teams are opening first-class venues, including our team, which opened a beautifully renovated Romema Arena in Haifa in 2012-13. Hapoel Jerusalem has attracted new ownership, including present New York Knicks star Amar’e Stoudemire. As the owner of Maccabi Haifa, I welcome and am open to additional owners for our Maccabi Haifa team.

Is it your hope to have Maccabi Haifa play in both the BSL and
the Euroleague?
Our goal is to continue to be a force in the Israeli Basketball Super League. The Euroleague is something we can see happening in the future, but our focus is on the BSL and continuing to build Haifa as a global brand in international basketball with our annual games against NBA competition. We will soon announce the names of the NBA teams we will face in the United States and the dates, so our American fans can come out and see us.

I know of your love of baseball. How is your quest to bring professional baseball to Israel coming?
Baseball is a passion of mine, and we continue to support the local Israel Association of Baseball each year. We hope to build high-class baseball facilities in Israel in the near future.

Winning Shot

070414_basketballLOS ANGELES — In 1981, David Blatt moved to Israel in pursuit of a path of lifelong worship — to play professional basketball.

Now, more than 30 years later, Blatt is leaving Israel to make a different, and totally unprecedented, form of aliyah — to leave the ranks of Israeli basketball to coach in the NBA.

On June 20, the Cleveland Cavaliers announced the hiring of Blatt as their head coach.

“I’m leaving my home but not my family,” Blatt had said at a June 12 news conference, as he explored his NBA options. “I’m not necessarily leaving for a better place. I’m leaving to follow my dream.”

He becomes the first coach in the history of European basketball to move directly to an NBA head coaching position. Blatt’s journey from the Boston suburbs to Israel and now back to the United States marks a triumph not only for Blatt but also for the small but storied world of Israeli basketball, and particularly for the Maccabi Tel Aviv team, famous for its underdog victories.

The most recent of those, which seems to have catapulted Blatt into the upper echelons of professional basketball, took place in the Euroleague Final Four in mid-May when Blatt led an undermanned Maccabi Tel Aviv squad to consecutive victories and the championship, a feat that impressed even NBA executives.

“Maccabi was outgunned at every position except coach,” one NBA general manager told ESPN. “David took down two Goliaths in a weekend. He belongs in the NBA.”

It has been a long journey for Blatt, who grew up in Framingham, Mass., as an avid Celtics fan. Blatt attended Hebrew school at Temple Beth Am and later recalled putting money in jars to plant trees in Israel. But he never connected his passion for basketball with his Jewish background.

Instead, he established himself as a top basketball talent and also had the good fortune to play for top coaches — first at Framingham South High School for Phil Moresi, now in the Massachusetts High School Basketball Hall of Fame, and then at Princeton University for Pete Carril, famed as the inventor of the “Princeton offense.”

During Blatt’s sophomore year at Princeton, a coach for an Israeli kibbutz team recruited him to play in Israel for the summer. Blatt loved kibbutz life and found that he was hooked. By the time he competed for the U.S. team in the 1981 Maccabi Games, winning a gold medal, he knew he was coming back.

“From the time I came here in 1979, I knew that I wanted to play in Israel professionally for some years,” he told Haaretz. “I realized that I wasn’t making the NBA, and I wanted to continue to play basketball professionally, in terms of money, but more than anything — to keep playing.”

He played nine of the next 12 years in Israel before retiring in 1993 to become a coach.

His coaching career eventually took him to Maccabi Tel Aviv — a team for which he had never played — where he served as an assistant under legendary coach Pini Gershon. When Gershon took a break from coaching in 2001, Blatt stepped into the head job for two successful seasons. Blatt went back to the job of assistant coach when Gershon returned.

Blatt then bounced around Europe, coaching several teams as well as the Russian national team, which he led to an Olympic bronze medal in 2012. In 2010, Blatt returned to Maccabi as head coach.

Among Israeli basketball teams, Maccabi Tel Aviv has long been dominant, winning the Israeli Championship 51 times and the European Championship six times since the team’s inception in 1932. That history, along with the city’s famed weather, culture and English-speaking population, has made it one of the most desirable international locales for top players, including Jordan
Farmar, a Jewish standout currently with the Los Angeles Lakers who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv during the 2011 NBA lockout.

Maccabi Tel Aviv, in turn, has used that desirability to its advantage, offering low salaries to match a payroll that is relatively small by European standards.

“It’s known to be what is called among players a low-ball organization — they’ll lure you and low-ball you into signing with them because of tradition and history,” said David Pick, a senior basketball correspondent for Eurobasket.com and Israeli sports channel One.co.il. “They’re expecting players to take pay cuts to play for Maccabi, and for the most part it works.”

However, despite that edge in attracting talent, this year’s Maccabi Tel Aviv team was widely considered weak and unlikely to advance far in the playoffs. Three of their five projected starters at the beginning of the season had been injured, and the team entered the Euroleague’s Final Four as a severe underdog. When Maccabi took the championship in a pair of nail-biters, the victory was hailed in Israeli newspapers as a “miracle.”

Shortly after the victory, Blatt announced that he was interested in pursuing options in the NBA. When he flew back to the United States last week for his father’s funeral, he reportedly met with new Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr for 45 minutes during an airport layover in Los Angeles, and Golden State subsequently offered him a position as one of Kerr’s assistants. He also interviewed with Cleveland, first by phone, and then in person on June 18. They offered him the job the next day.

It is an open question, of course, whether Blatt’s success in Israel will carry over to the NBA, although the increasing success of European players in making the jump suggests that talent can transfer. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the San Antonio Spurs just won an NBA title by dominating the LeBron James-led Miami Heat with an international roster and style of play.

A number of Blatt’s former players and coaches think he can do it. Ex-coaches Carril and Moresi have both expressed their belief that Blatt can make the transition, and former Maccabi and NBA player Anthony Parker, subsequently a scout for the Orlando Magic, has repeatedly stated that Blatt is one of the best coaches in the world.

Blatt will be leaving behind a country that not only has become his home, but also has embraced him as a superstar.

“David Blatt doesn’t want to walk out in the street because he wouldn’t be able to,” Pick said. “David leaves the coaches’ facility at 1, 1:30 in the morning just to avoid the mob.”

But, as Blatt has proven before, he’s willing to travel a long way from home to pursue his dreams.

Evil, Even in Argentina

A 1956 photo taken by a police photographer in Buenos Aires for Josef Mengele's Argentine identification document.  (Wikimedia Commons)

A 1956 photo taken by a police photographer in Buenos Aires for Josef Mengele’s Argentine identification document. (Wikimedia Commons)

Seven decades after the Holocaust, Josef Mengele is still a difficult name to stomach, as the repercussions of his medical experiments echo throughout history. So when I first heard about “The German Doctor” (“Wakolda” in German), a historical drama set in early 1960s Argentina and focused on part of Mengele’s life on the run from the Mossad, I wondered: Would the film portray the Angel of Death in a sympathetic light or would it show the man as history remembers him?

Lucia Puenzo’s film, based on her fifth novel, follows an Argentine family (mother Eva, father Enzo and youngest child Lilith) that the fugitive Mengele — known as Helmut Gregor — takes an interest in, as Lilith’s blonde hair and blue eyes intrigue him. She is a “perfect specimen” in his eyes. They cautiously welcome him into the bed and breakfast — doubling as a family home — that belonged to Eva’s mother, and “Helmut” enmeshes himself in their lives. Enzo is working to develop a doll with a beating heart, Eva is pregnant again, and Lilith is short for her age — so the doctor gets into their good graces with financing for mass production, medication and growth-hormone injections, respectively. Meanwhile, Nora Eldoc, a photographer at a local German-language school and an undercover Mossad agent, is on Mengele’s trail.

“The German Doctor,” which was released in 2013 but didn’t hit American theaters until this April, plays out like a post-war thriller mixed with a family drama. Much like the modern remakes and re-imaginings of suspense thrillers, the film explores a rarely seen facet of Mengele’s life on the run, albeit fictionalized. But what the film doesn’t do, unlike the aforementioned remakes, is sympathize with the doctor. Mengele is the stoic scientist, focused on his experiments and not caring about the human element. He doesn’t care about the pain Lilith experiences because of the hormones nor that he is endangering the lives of Eva’s newborn twins with his Darwinian experiment.

In the end, the story of the family is left open-ended, as they discover the truth about Mengele’s experiments. Mengele escapes and continues to elude capture for 30 years, and Nora is found dead the next day, even though Mossad agents arrived as Mengele made a hasty exit via a pontoon plane prepared by friendly neighboring German expats.

Cinematically, what works about the film is the Argentine setting. The scenes are shot with a naturalistic feel, which helps to draw the audience in, and the vistas are beautiful. Snowy mountains can be seen in the distance throughout the film, and the lake nestled in the forest near the bed and breakfast serves as a sign of isolation for the family and an eventual escape for Mengele.

Historical associations, however, bog down “The German Doctor.” If it were a random German expat who took an interest in the Argentine family but didn’t experiment on its members, that expat’s actions and scientific curiosities might have been forgiven. But because that expat is cast as Mengele, his actions are unforgivable — the experiments rise to the level of small-scale atrocities, and this taints the film.

The religious background of Lilith and her family, which isn’t revealed in the film, is irrelevant. The fact that they’re human matters more, and while that doesn’t fully counteract Mengele’s actions and his history, it makes the film’s plot a little more bearable.

Boisterous Yet Heartfelt

Jack Lacy, Jenny Slate and Gaby Hoffman star in "Obvious Child." (A24 Films)

Jack Lacy, Jenny Slate and Gaby Hoffman star in “Obvious Child.” (A24 Films)

Going back at least as far as Moses, Jews have taken public positions at personal risk. Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre’s inspiration comes from more recent role models: Larry Fine, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.

The star and writer-director of the bracingly honest indie comedy “Obvious Child” embrace their Jewish comic influences and their Jewish upbringings. But they don’t view the frankness of Slate’s character — New York stand-up comedian Donna Stern, who (for better and worse) draws her act from her personal life, including an unexpected pregnancy — as uniquely Jewish.

“When I think about why the humor is so open, it’s just Donna’s nature from birth,” Slate said during a recent interview. “Maybe she’s been encouraged by her dad [a poet] to be outward, but it doesn’t have anything to do with religion. Also, you know, we live in a world where a certain cultural Judaism includes the goys now.”

The young women share a laugh, and Slate describes a phenomenon she encountered when she moved to Los Angeles a couple years ago and met other transplants.

“The seders and the Rosh Hashanah parties become less typically religious and more cultural, and social becomes familial,” Slate explained. “Whatever the modern Jewish sort of social environment is, that cultural environment, you don’t have to be Jewish to be a part of it.”

Robespierre and two other writers caught Slate’s stand-up act some five years ago and cast her in their short film, “Obvious Child.” Robespierre expanded the story to feature length and was able to raise the small budget thanks to Slate’s visibility on “Saturday Night Live” (one season) and recent recurring television roles in “House of Lies,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Bob’s Burgers.”

A boisterous yet heartfelt hunk of 20-something angst, populated by self-aware, hyper-verbal characters still seeking their place in the world, “Obvious Child” opens today.

Although it involves revealing a major plot turn, it should be noted that the film pivots on Donna’s decision to have an abortion. A conversation with her mother (played by Polly Draper) provides a key scene, not least because “Obvious Child” is that rare movie in which parents and adult children communicate with and understand each other.

But that neat touch likely will be overlooked amid Donna’s brutally candid and self-critical quips and the film’s willingness to deal directly with abortion.

“It’s not an agenda movie in any way,” Robespierre asserted. “It’s a romantic comedy with a modern look at a modern woman’s experience. One woman, who we love.”

Robespierre grew up in New York City. Both her parents are Jewish, but she didn’t have a bat mitzvah because, she said, “I had dyslexia when I was little so my mother thought I needed to tackle English before Hebrew.”

It may seem like a joke, but it’s not. Slate, who is originally from Milton, Mass., supplies the humor with her childhood memories of Passover.

“We had really, really big seders,” she recalled. “My grandfather would read them, and it was the best, and I would get super, super scared waiting for Elijah. When people would sing ‘Eliahu’ I would have a straight-up meltdown under the table, crying so hard.”

That sounds more traumatic than amusing, admittedly. But Slate has a tough side, perhaps developed from growing up watching the Three Stooges with her father.

“I remember thinking they’re so violent and loud and just so ludicrous, and I related to that more than anything else,” Slate said. “I always relate to the things that are just the most human. And the highest energy. That’s what I go for, I think.”

Our conversation, not unlike “Obvious Child,” merged irreverence with serious subjects. Needless to say, Robespierre and Slate want their movie to provoke laughs as well as discussion.

“We are excited for any conversations that it ignites,” Robespierre said, “whether it’s about the right to choose and women’s reproductive rights or whether it’s about our Jewishness, our heritage. But so far we haven’t been cornered on either of those, so we’ve been living in a comfortable world.”

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

Culinary Delights

The HardLox Jewish Food and Heritage Festival in Asheville, N.C., is a popular fundraiser that features everything from hot dogs to noodle kugel. (Courtesy Marty Gillen)

The HardLox Jewish Food and Heritage Festival in Asheville, N.C., is a popular fundraiser that features everything from hot dogs to noodle kugel.
(Courtesy Marty Gillen)

Asheville, N.C., and Little Rock, Ark. Not exactly the Jewish capitals of America, but they are both home to major Jewish food festivals.

From street vendors to strolling klezmer musicians, food festivals bring people together with traditional favorites, uniting history and culture. According to Marty Gillen, chairman of Asheville’s HardLox Jewish Food and Heritage Festival, the festival is the most important Jewish event of the year.

“We have no Jewish deli in Asheville at this time,”  Gillen said. “We say that HardLox is the only day of the year that you can get real Jewish food in Asheville.”

A fundraiser for Congregation Beth HaTephila, the Reform temple in Asheville, HardLox is staffed by 250 volunteers. Visitors can nosh on corned beef on rye, potato knishes, kosher hot dogs, bagels, lox and cream cheese, chopped-liver sandwiches, whitefish salad and cheese blintzes. The Beth HaTephila sisterhood prepares 50 gallons of matzo ball soup and 30 large pans of noodle kugel.

“It is our opportunity to share our food, our music and our heritage with the greater Asheville community,”  said Gillen. “The music helps maintain the Jewish atmosphere all day at the festival.”

Little Rock’s Jewish Food and Cultural Festival, held in late April this year, brings together Jews from throughout Arkansas not only to celebrate their shared heritage, but also to share their culture and traditions with a non-Jewish audience.

“Since our own Jewish community numbers only around 2,000, most of the attendees at our festival are non-Jews, many of whom are experiencing Jewish food for the first time or for the only time that year, as Jewish staples like bagels and lox or kugel are not readily available in stores, and there is no Jewish delicatessen here,”  said Marianne Tettlebaum, director of the Jewish Federation of Arkansas, which holds the festival.

The festival’s average annual attendance is 10,000.

“Our festival is a statewide effort,”  Tettlebaum said. “Volunteers in Jewish communities throughout the state bake, cook and staff the booths.”

Tettlebaum called Jewish food “a tangible and enjoyable example of shared religious and cultural traditions.”

“I would describe Jewish food as any food that has religious significance or has been meaningful to a particular group of Jews on a broad scale for a certain period of time,” she said.

Little Rock, Ark.’s festival is a statewide effort, from baked goods to religious and cultural traditions. (Jewish Federation of Arkansas)

Little Rock, Ark.’s festival is a statewide effort, from baked goods to religious and cultural traditions.
(Jewish Federation of Arkansas)

The Arkansas festival also features cultural and religious booths that showcase various aspects of Jewish life, from Arkansas to ancient Israel. Booths include “Ask the Rabbi”; “Shalom Israel,” where volunteers from Israel or those knowledgeable about Israeli culture provide information about the Jewish state; a large model of the Western Wall, where visitors can leave messages that make it to the Western Wall in Jerusalem; Ati’Day, which features activities for kids; and a booth with Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis offering hands-on Jewish activities, such as learning how to write in Hebrew.

Overseas, Australia’s Sydney Jewish Food Festival sold out in its first year, 2012. France, Germany, Argentina and Hungary are considering launching Jewish food festivals. The thriving Jewish food scene in England, meanwhile, is feted during the annual “Gefiltefest”  food festival in London.

The fifth annual Gefiltefest took place on June 15. Dan Sher, the festival’s events and communications officer, said that while eating is universal, in the Jewish community “our food really matters.”

“Eating is not just a casual enjoyment but an expression of our culture, history, philosophy and, for some, spirituality,” Sher said. “Within the Jewish community, numerous social and spiritual rituals revolve around food.”

For instance, Sher said that gathering outside bakeries on a Saturday night in London’s Golders Green neighborhood, which has a large Jewish population, is for many locals “as important as the Shabbat Kiddush in shul.”

More traditionally, Sher said, “On Purim we eat with triumph pastries said to resemble the ears or hat of the wicked Haman. With even more charged emotions, at Pesach we retell our ancestors’ Egyptian exodus as though it were ours, with accompaniments of tears for our slavery (saltwater), the mortar of the pyramids we were forced to build (haroseth) and the unleavened bread that we hastily took with us (matzah).”

“For the Jewish community, dishes reveal our roots, our diaspora wanderings and also our modern practicalities and passions,”  said Sher. “Through the dishes we cook or cling to — with fondness or inexplicable loyalty — we can relate to the cross-continental journeys of our ancestors or evoke our childhood and families.”

When the first Gefiltefest was held in October 2010, there were no similar Jewish food festivals, but now communities around the world “are beginning to host events based on the Gefiltefest model,”  according to Sher. The festival is under Orthodox kosher supervision.

“We attract some of the biggest names in kosher food, and we are now the U.K.’s biggest kosher food festival,”  he said.

This year’s festival includes exhibitors of kosher cuisine from Syria, Italy, Israel, Tunisia, and the Czech Republic. In cooking workshops,
attendees are able to pickle their own herring, preserve lemons, make baba ganoush and bake challot.

The event also features a popular Ashkenazi versus Sephardi cook-off and the announcement of the annual Gefiltefest-Jewish Chronicle [England] Food Awards, for which the British public votes on the best kosher restaurants, bagels and cheesecake in the months leading up to the festival.

Gefiltefest 2014 also marks the launch of “The Gefiltefest Cookbook,”  which features recipes from more than 50 other internationally renowned chefs.

“Perhaps belatedly, the value of our [Jewish] culinary heritage is now appreciated across the globe,”  Sher said. “People have started to appreciate that food is an important way of uniting people to celebrate our history and culture.”

Have You Heard?


“Tribes” centers around a young deaf Jewish man and his highly dysfunctional hearing family. Photo by Stan Barouh

With so much talk of inclusion, it’s easy to conclude it’s just a buzzword, the issue of the moment. Inclusion can be hard to define, and what feels inclusive to one person may not feel that way to another.

Yet, some institutions are taking meaningful steps toward including individuals with disabilities in their programming. Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre, for instance, has put the issue of inclusion front and center in its production of Nina Raine’s 2010 hit play, “Tribes.” The show, which won the 2012 Drama Desk Award for outstanding play, opened on May 22 and closes on June 22.

“Tribes” tells the coming-of-age story of Billy, a young Jewish British man who is deaf and lives with his highly dysfunctional hearing family. Billy is played by deaf actor, John McGinty. For the show’s Baltimore premiere, Everyman also premiered a brand-new handheld technical device that deaf and hard-of-hearing audience members can use to make the play more accessible.

Everyman Theatre is one of the first theaters in the country to adopt the new technology. The devices, which are complimentary, will be available throughout the run of “Tribes” as well as for all Everyman productions in the future.

When he saw “Tribes” in New York, Everyman’s founding artistic director and the play’s director, Vincent M. Lancisi, said it “hit him right between the eyes.”

“I knew Everyman had to do it, and I knew I had to direct it,” he said. “Everyman is sort of known for its family dramas. We kind of put the ‘dys’ in dysfunctional, and this play is definitely about a dysfunctional family!

“When we started working on the play, we knew we wanted to make it inclusive for deaf people. The more we learned about what it is like to be deaf, the more we realized that theater isn’t a particularly accessible art form for the deaf,” he continued. “So we hired Tim McCarty, the president of Quest Theatre [an inclusive, visually based theater company in Lanham, Md.] as our director of access and Will Conley, former chair of the theater department at Gallaudet University, as our director of artistic sign language. We also began to search for technologies that would make the play accessible. Lo and behold, we found a company that was developing one.”

In addition to providing the handheld devices, Everyman has also installed adjustable seat mounts to hold the devices comfortably in front of the seats.

Lancisi said that filtered screens on the devises ensure that those sitting nearby will not be distracted by light from its screen. An operator in the theater’s sound booth makes sure that the dialogue appears on the screens at the same time that actors are speaking their lines.

Yael Zelinger, of the Center for Jewish Education’s Jewish Advocates for Deaf Education, said the new
device is a great innovation for the deaf community.

“Anything that opens up accessibility and raises awareness in the hearing community about the deaf community is good,” she said.

Sheryl Cooper, an American Sign Language interpreter and coordinator of the deaf studies major at Towson University, agreed. Cooper, who was instrumental in promoting the show to members of Baltimore’s deaf community, believes the show will be a “boon” for all families, but especially for those with deaf family members.
Lancisi said that patrons are “loving it.”

The only drawback? It’s expensive. Lancisi hopes Everyman supporters will consider making a donation to offset the costs.

For tickets, information or to make a donation, visit everymantheatre.org.


Make It Memorable

Poor Dad! For Mother’s Day almost 114 million greeting cards are purchased annually; for Dad’s big day, 90 million. And while many restaurants are bombarded for reservations on Mother’s Day, the same ones often are less than full on Dad’s special day. The most hallowed tradition on Father’s Day is for everyone to gather around the grill while Dad cooks!

Getting fathers to recall their past can be a gift for them and for the rest of the family. There are many commercial “memory” books that encourage Dad or Zayde to write down his blasts from his past. You can buy one such as “Dad, Tell Me a Story: How to Revive the Tradition of Storytelling with Your Children” (a great gift for dads with children of all ages). Or you can make your own. Get paper and a loose-leaf binder. Have kids and grandkids write a question at the top of a page such as, “What was your favorite game when you were 10?” “Who was your favorite teacher?” And since Dad still remains king of the grill, here are some side dishes that will please him and all guests. Make Father’s Day a celebration he deserves.


Tips & Tricks

  • Crumple up and soap a piece of aluminum foil (even slightly used, but clean) into a ball to clean the grill or tough surfaces on pots/casseroles. (better than steel wool).
  • If you’re short on refrigerator space, fill your bathtub, laundry sink or top-load washing machine with ice and chill bottles until you need them.
  • Knot the corners of a cloth when eating outdoors to prevent flapping. Slip a tiny bouquet of herbs or dried flowers in each knot for decoration.