‘For Whom It Stands’

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture is adding to the state’s 200th Star Spangled Banner celebration with a new exhibit, “For Whom It Stands,” which examines the meaning of the American flag in a manner that is “inclusive, culturally diverse and interactive,” according to the museum’s executive director, Dr. A. Skipp Sanders.

More than 25 artists are featured, including Israeli-American artist Dalya Luttwak’s painted metal sculpture “A Tribute to New York,” a piece representing her visual response to unanswered questions that arose for her as an immigrant after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Unanswered questions were also the impetus to the museum’s exhibit.

Grace Wisher was a 13-year-old African-American indentured servant in the household of Mary Pickersgill, who sewed the original flag in 1812. Wisher contributed to the making of the flag but little else is known of her story, and her personal effects seem to have been lost to history. Investigating Wisher’s story and others surrounding the U.S. flag and its meaning is central to the theme of “For Whom It Stands.”

A flag is a collection of images, explained the exhibit’s curator, Michelle Joan Wilkinson. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything in and of itself, but when someone says what it means, it takes on significance. “That’s when we find our own mirror image in it,” she said.

Visitors are met with larger-than-life-size photo images that hang in the lobby entrance, created by Atlanta-based photographer Sheila Pree Bright. Printed on flag banner material, 15 people, including Mayor Stephanie Rawlins-Blake, are shown holding the American flag in a manner that illustrates what the flag represents to them. The photos are black and white, but the flag is in full color. One woman cradles a section of the flag, another carries it over his back as if bearing a heavy load, another is on one knee in a prayerful pose, flag draped over her arms.

Inside, more than 100 objects are on display including painting, sculpture, photographs and artifacts that range from historic to contemporary. An interactive sound installation, researched and organized by music curator and vocal percussionist Shodekeh, features various renditions of the national anthem — from Baltimore’s jazz maven Ethel Ennis to Jimi Hendrix and includes interviews with the artists as well.

 


Created with flickr slideshow.

 

Luttwak’s piece is in a section that includes work by artists of many different ethnicities to represent the breadth of the American experience.

Luttwak has lived in the U.S. since 1970 when her husband took a job in Washington, D.C. It was after the 9/11 attacks that through her art she responded to feelings the event conjured for her. She said although she felt welcomed when she arrived and had grown to feel a part of America, she “felt always a little bit like an outsider.”

“Something happened with 9/11,” she said. “I asked, ‘Where do I fit in after this horrible disaster?’ So as an artist I went back to the symbolism.”

Luttwak described some of the symbols of her work — the American flag and its colors, white picket fences, and the skyline of New York — things that, according to her, represent the American Dream.

“[Ideas of the American dream], that’s what brought me to this country. Everything was so welcoming and easy, and after 9/11 I re-examined how I felt, who am I in America,” she explained. “I’m an outsider. America became very closed, very suspicious. I re-examined my approach to America, but I was examined by America too.”

Her sculpture in the show, echoing colors and shapes of the American flag, portrays a white New York skyline, red lines ‘in flight’ toward the skyline and blue anchors at the base. White represents hope according to Luttwak, and red represents blood, danger, and action. The square blue anchors at the perimeter of the sculpture stand for stability — to represent that even though under attack, New York (and thus America) is stable at its core and will always rise hopeful regardless, she explained.

Luttwak said there was little interest in the series of seven sculptures entitled “An American Dream” immediately after she created it. “The pain was so deep and so strong, now I’m showing it … years later, so I’ve come full circle.” she said.

Luttwak said that after she finished making the pieces, questions about where she fit in and what America meant for her became more clear. “I was reassured the choice (to come to the U.S.) was the right one and I’ll fight for America. … I’m re-examining my American Dream.”

‘For Whom It Stands’
Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture
830 East Pratt St., Baltimore
443-263-1800
africanamericanculture.org

mgerr@jewishtimes.com

More Than Music

Erika Schon conducts the Baltimore Chapter of HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir. (David Stuck)

Erika Schon conducts the Baltimore Chapter of HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir.
(David Stuck)

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Just ask Erika Schon, conductor of the Baltimore chapter of HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir.

The choir recently returned from HaZamir’s annual festival in New York, which culminated in a performance at Carnegie Hall on March 30. Schon’s group includes 36 youngsters in grades 8 to 12 who hail from all over Maryland.

The teens rehearse once a week and their commitment is evidenced, said Schon, by the fact that some of them travel more than an hour each way to attend the Sunday night rehearsals. The talented teens also performed at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts on Sunday, May 18.

Baltimore’s HaZamir chapter is part of a network of 24 Jewish choirs across the United States and Israel. HaZamir Director Vivian Lazar, wife of Zamir Choral Foundation (Ha-Zamir’s umbrella organization) founder and director Matthew Lazar, explained that one part of the organization’s mission is to perform great Jewish music at the highest level.

“Jewish music has a bad rap,” she said. “Many people don’t know there is great Jewish music and have never heard Jewish music performed at this level, especially by teens.”

But Lazar and Schon point out that there is much more to the HaZamir experience than great music. In addition to teaching “the highest level of music performance,” HaZamir’s goals are strengthening Jewish identity, forging strong ties to Israel, building pluralistic and trans-denominational communities and facilitating the development of leadership skills.

“We have a really diverse population that attracts Jews of all backgrounds from the most secular to the most observant. When we get them into the choir, it breaks down any barriers that tend to divide the Jewish people,” she said. “Music has the power to touch people and bring them together. Our teens make friends with teens with like values from all over that last a lifetime.”

“This is a musical youth movement,” Lazar stressed. And technologies such as Skype and social media have made it possible for HaZamir singers from
all over the U.S., Canada and Israel to keep in regular contact. One of HaZamir’s missions is to build connections between American and Israeli teens.

“What’s exciting is that we’re continuing to grow,” said Schon. “Baltimore has just gotten funding to form a HaZamir chapter in Ashkelon, Israel, our sister city.” Each year, Israeli teens who are members of HaZamir travel to the U.S. where they meet and perform with their American counterparts, Schon said.

Each piece of music is accompanied by a lesson plan, said Lazar.

“Teens are studying Jewish texts and Jewish history and they don’t even realize it. They are singing words about our Jewish tradition,” said Lazar, who noted that the learning that takes place during HaZamir rehearsals is especially valuable for the most secular teens, who tend to be Israeli.

“Many of our kids are so secular they don’t even know the most basic things about Judaism. To some of them, Yom Kippur is a day at the beach,” she said.

While Israeli teens learn about Jewish history and traditions, American singers learn from their Israeli peers what it is like to live with the constant threat of violence and knowing that they will eventually have to serve in the military.

“One man, an American alumnus of the program became great friends with an alumnus from Israel,” said Lazar. “The young man (whose name was Chris) called his Israeli friend (Chaim) who answered and said, ‘Hey Bro, I’m in the middle of a skirmish in Hebron. I’ll call you back later.’ The American kids get an understanding of Israel that is more than just a newspaper story,” she said.

For those who missed the concert last week, or those who can’t get enough of HaZamir, Schon suggested attending the choir’s final concert of the season on May 28 at Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase. HaZamir will be singing with adult choir Zemer Chai: The Jewish Community Choir of Washington, D.C.

“They are superb musicians, and for us to sing with them is a great opportunity,” Schon said.

For information about HaZamir, visit the group’s Facebook page at face book.com/pages/HaZamir-Baltimore/ 213029532048760.

For information about Zamir visit zamirchoralfoundation.org.

Dancing with Autism

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After she adopted her son Neal, Elaine Hall created the Miracle Project, a program that uses musical theater to engage autistic children and teens.
(Provided)

During Passover of 1996, Elaine Hall traveled from Los Angeles to Russia to adopt her then 2-year-old son, Neal. A year later, Neal would be diagnosed with autism, and Hall would begin an odyssey that would change not only her life and Neal’s life, but also the lives of the many others they would touch.

Hall will be one of the keynote speakers at a special needs symposium at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts on Sunday, June 1. Marcella Franczkowski, assistant state superintendent for Maryland’s Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services, will also be featured.

“When Neal came to me, he was spinning around in circles, he didn’t answer to his name, didn’t make eye contact, and he was very, very sick,” said Hall, an actress and acting coach who has worked in the film and television industries. “He had liver toxicity. I spent the first year just getting him healthy.”

Approximately a year after his adoption, Neal was diagnosed with autism, and Hall began trying to learn all she could about the disability.

“The Internet was just starting, and there wasn’t as much information out there as there is now,” she said. “We started all kinds of traditional therapies, but nothing was working.”

Hall later brought her son to Maryland to see the late Dr. Stanley Greenspan, a child psychiatrist and founder of the floortime approach of working with autistic children. (Floortime encourages parents to engage children at their level by getting on the floor to play).

“Dr. Greenspan put me on a path of relationship-based intervention. Instead of trying to get Neal to enter our world, he encouraged me to rally all my theater friends and have them join Neal’s world,” she said. “So if Neal was spinning around, we’d spin around with him and make it ‘Ring Around the Rosie.’ If he was staring at his hand, we would stare at our hands. Slowly, he emerged.”

Inspired by what she had witnessed, and deeply committed to spending time with her son, Hall quit her job and decided instead to share the techniques she had developed with other autistic children and their families. With a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation in Los Angeles, Hall founded The Miracle Project Judaica in 2004, which provides a warm, inclusive Jewish environment where children and teens with autism and other special needs, as well as their typically developing siblings and peers, are encouraged to express themselves through music, dance, acting, stories and writing. Through The Miracle Project, participants develop and perform their own musical theater production.

In 2005, Hall was approached by a group of documentary filmmakers interested in making a film based on the project. While maintaining the Jewish Miracle Project, Hall also developed a secular version of the program that was featured in “Autism: The Musical!” first screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2007. The documentary, directed by Tricia Regan, went on to win two Emmy Awards for HBO.

At first, said Hall, theaters didn’t want to show the film because of its title. “They thought it was making fun of autism and people with autism. We said, ‘Just watch it.’ Once they did, they saw how beautiful and sensitive it was,” she said, noting that it was short-listed for an Academy Award. “I want people not to be afraid of autism.”

When her son reached bar mitzvah age, Hall was determined that he should take part in the Jewish milestone. She created a multisensory b’nai mitzvah curriculum for Neal and other Jewish youngsters with special needs.

“Neal was the first bar mitzvah to use the curriculum,” Hall said. “He danced his haftorah.”

The program continues to be offered at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services in Los Angeles.

Hall continued to build awareness and hope in her 2010 book “Now I See the Moon: A Mother, a Son, a Miracle.” The book was the official selection for World Autism Awareness Day in 2011 and was suggested reading for Jewish Disability Awareness Month in 2013.

Now 20, Neal works at a grocery store and an organic farm that is part of the Shalom Institute. Though still non-verbal, he communicates by using an electronic device. He is also a talented athlete.

At the symposium on June 1, Hall will deliver a talk about finding spirituality in parenting children with special needs.

“I’ll talk about redefining normal, becoming an activist and listening to the child who doesn’t speak,” she said. “God made all of us, and to shut out one person is to shut us all out. We will all have disabilities someday. We really have to be Abraham’s tent.”

Jen Erez, special needs coordinator of the Baltimore Jewish Abilities Alliance, said in addition to the two keynote speakers, the symposium will also include a resource fair and two workshop sessions. Workshop topics include managing relationships, planning for the future and understanding the social challenges of children and adolescents on the autism spectrum.

Erez said the program is appropriate for both parents and professionals.

To register, visit asoft4161.accri soft.com/baltimorejcc/index.php?src= forms&id=Special+Needs+Symposium.

‘A Testament To Freedom’

Glenn Marcus spends a somber moment at the grave of his uncle, Milton, at Lorraine  American Cemetery in France. (Provided)

Glenn Marcus spends a somber moment at the grave of his uncle, Milton, at Lorraine American Cemetery in France.
(Provided)

Glenn Marcus grew up in the flickering light of the old-style movie house, not today’s corporate multiplex cinemas. The smell of mustiness and popcorn still takes him back to the Hollywood Theatre in Arbutus, which his grandfather owned and ran as a mom-and-pop business: his aunt sold concessions, his dad helped out with the books on the weekends, and his grandmother routed out anybody who got too comfortable or couples who were too close for comfort.

Little wonder then that today Marcus, who spent a dozen years at PBS, is a documentarian with an Emmy Award-winning film to his credit and a partner in a small film production company that researches and produces primarily historical documentaries. The Baltimore native grew up in Fallstaff and Mount Washington and celebrated his bar mitzvah at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation; later, he was youth director at Washington Hebrew.

His history of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., marked the 10-year anniversary of its unveiling with a showing last Friday on Maryland Public Television (Channel 22). While Marcus and his partner, filmmaker Robert Uth, often focus on historical topics, including Emmy-winning “Korean War Stories” and “Tesla, Master of Lighting,” which both ran on PBS, “The World War II Memorial: A Testament to Freedom” holds particular personal meaning for Marcus.

The one-hour film tells the tale of the conception, design and construction of the memorial interwoven with a brief overview of the war’s history. Marcus’s father and uncle were WWII veterans, members of that “greatest generation,” as Tom Brokow so succinctly named the men and women raised during the Depression who went to war between 1940 and 1945. His father, Sydney Marcus, was part of the operation that landed at Normandy Beach; his father’s brother, Milton, never came home. Milton Marcus is buried overseas at Lorraine American Cemetery in France, one of 22 U.S. military cemeteries located overseas.

Marcus appears at his uncle’s graveside in another Marcus/Uth film, New Voyage’s 2009 “Hallowed Grounds: America’s Overseas Military Cemeteries,” which featured all 22 memorial burial grounds across Western and Eastern Europe and in the Philippines and Japan. While director Uth is not Jewish, Marcus noted that whenever a wide-angle shot of the vast cemetery graves was called for, a Jewish grave indicated by a Star of David was captured amid all the crosses.

Marcus’s on-film appearance in “Hallowed Grounds” was, he said, spur of the moment, but one of his life’s most moving experiences. Asked what he knew about his uncle, Marcus replied, “I only knew he died in the war and was buried in France. I can barely even talk about it now, but it was so profound.” His father wouldn’t — or couldn’t — talk about his late brother. It was that way with that generation, Marcus said: “That was classic, that generation and the way men were about not sharing feelings. [The war] was a nightmare they didn’t want to relive. If you’d been in combat, you could never really explain it to someone who hasn’t been there. When those guys came home they wanted to get on with their lives.” He believes that when he was filmed at his uncle’s grave that was the first time a mourner’s kaddish was said over an American soldier’s grave on foreign soil.

What the older generation wanted to forget, their children choose to remember. For Marcus that means commemoration and preservation, and what better way to do that than by telling the story and recapping the history of World War II and the memorial on film. Judaism, in particular, values and upholds memorializing as an integral aspect of individual and communal observances.

“My father was very reluctant to talk about his war-time experiences,” Marcus said. “I knew not to ask. It was just hush, hush because of Uncle Milton’s death.” Delving into the controversies and history of what it took to design and construct the World War II Memorial was a way to both assuage some of the guilt he assimilated from his father and to heal some of his pain on never having met his uncle.

Marcus, who lives in northwest Washington and teaches film history for the Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs in Washington, is pleased that PBS is re-screening the documentary because it featurs some heavy hitters, including Paul Tibbets, who dropped the atom bomb over Japan. “He didn’t talk very often,” Marcus explained, “and he only agreed to this interview because his veterans’ organizations vouched for us.” Other well-known veterans who appear in interviews include actors James Arness and Tony Curtis, former Sens. Bob Dole, Daniel Inouye and George McGovern, baseball star Yogi Berra and John Eisenhower, son of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

These days Marcus and Uth are at work on another war documentary, this one telling the story in words, pictures and film of World War I, which has never been done on screen from an American point of view, Marcus said.

On the nation’s 10th anniversary of the World War II memorial and the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landing, Marcus is pleased that Americans still have the capacity to remember these events. The memorial with its carved bronze depictions of different wartime fronts and branches of the armed services is viewed intently by aging veterans who visit. The memorial, Marcus said, works best as a place both of commemoration and of public forum, where later generations can learn from the memorial itself and from its visitors, that great generation that fought battles abroad and on the home front. “We, of course, have a long tradition of controversial memorials in the U.S.,” Marcus said. “But the real question is who is the memorial for and what will it be like in 50 years.”

Seizing An Opportunity

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The Mini Mobile Robotic Printer was invented by Tuvia Elbaum and Matan Caspi.
(Photo Courtesy of ZUtA Labs Ltd.)

Living in the fast-paced world of evolving mobile technology, two young Israeli entrepreneurs have invented what they hope will revolutionize the one device that they feel “got left behind” and seems to have missed the mobile revolution train: the printer.

Tuvia Elbaum and Matan Caspi, both 29 and students at the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT), are the designers of the world’s first truly practical and operational mobile printer. Known as the Mini Mobile Robotic Printer and slated to be available to the general public in 2015, the printer—measuring 4 by 4 1⁄2 inches and weighing only a one-half pound —will allow students, business professionals and anyone in need to print their work from any location.

Elbaum said that he came up with the idea for a pocket printer “from my day-to day life.”

“I’m always working on the go from my smartphone, tablet and laptop in random places, and when I wanted to print something — a memo before or after a meeting, a term sheet, short contract, or even an essay for school — I had to run and look for a printer or wait until I got home or to the office,” he said. “When I went online to look for a portable printer, I only found printers that are either too big to really carry around or too small to print on a standard A4 page [size].”

When Elbaum noticed that all of the printers needed to have paper fed through the device itself, he thought, “Hey, why not put the cartridge on a robot and let it run around by itself, and that will allow the printer to be really small and yet print on any size of paper?”

Elbaum and Caspi were able to pursue their innovation after being accepted into an elite program at JCT known as the Friedberg Program for Entrepreneurial Excellence, which gives students the opportunity to advance entrepreneurial ideas from the “exploratory” to the “concrete” stages—offering them financial assistance, mentoring, workshops and more in order to help make their ideas become a reality.

The pair of entrepreneurs then formed a new company called ZUtA Labs Ltd. and launched a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter, which according to Elbaum “succeeded in raising over 125 percent of what we wanted (more than a half-million dollars) and included some big names such as Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple.”

While the pocket printer is still “a project in the making,” Elbaum said those who offered their financial backing “really wanted to be part of creating this product, which is incredible and [demonstrates] the true power of Kickstarter.” He hopes to “reward” those who contributed via Kickstarter by shipping them the first batch of the finished mobile printers in January 2015.

Also helping the entrepreneurs’ cause were rave revues the device received at the Microsoft Israel Corporation’s prestigious ThinkNext technology fair, recently held in Tel Aviv.

In terms of how the printer works from a practical perspective, Elbaum said it is “just like any other printer.” One’s mobile device, such as a smartphone or laptop, will “recognize it as a printer and connect through Bluetooth,” he said.

The printer features an inkjet cartridge that will last for more than 1,000 printed pages and a battery that allows for more than one hour of use per full charge. It is “designed to be used in the simplest way and offers the most simple user experience,” said Elbaum.

Shimmy Zimels, who heads the Friedberg entrepreneurship program at JCT, said that the venture of Elbaum and Caspi “is a great achievement” and that they “seized the opportunity we gave them” through the program.

Zimels — himself the CEO of SunDwater.com, an Israeli company that converts polluted water into clean water — said he believes that the Friedberg program, launched in 2012, “helped push [Elbaum to Caspi] out of the gate,” providing them with “the combination of the right team, the proper funding, the mentoring and the access they had to the electronics laboratories at JCT.”

“We were a small accelerator to help them start their business,” he said.

But Zimels repeatedly stressed that Elbaum and Caspi, not the Friedberg program, should be given the credit for the invention.

Elbaum said he and Caspi, along with the rest of the staffers at ZUtA Labs, have already come up with several additions to the printer and are working on designs for other innovative products. But in the meantime, his plate is full with the launch of the robotic printer. He said, perhaps only half jokingly, that on top of everything else he “still has one class to complete in order to graduate” from JCT.

‘Touchdown Israel’

The Jerusalem Lions line up against the Tel Aviv Pioneers. The two teams are IFL arch-rivals. (provided)

The Jerusalem Lions line up against the Tel Aviv Pioneers. The two teams are IFL arch-rivals.
(provided)

Almost four years ago, San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker Paul Hirschberger began learning all he could about the North American-style of tackle football that is being played in Israel.

He has turned the research into his first sports film, “Touchdown Israel,” about how the growing sport is bridging cultural gaps in Israel.

“I was looking for my next film project and in doing my research I had read a feature story in The New York Times about tackle football being a growing sport in Israel,” Hirschberger said. “I contacted Andrew Gershman and Ari Louis of Israel Sports Radio, who covered football in Israel, and that began my nearly three-year odyssey to tell the story of football in Israel.”

He decided to use much of his own money to tell a story that has many facets to it and showcases how sports can be a tool to bring people together as teammates.

“What I ended up with was ‘Touchdown Israel,’ a feature-length documentary that presents the broader religious and cultural diversity that is Israel and illustrates how sports can be both metaphor and unifier for the world around it,” said Hirschberger. “American football has set down real roots in the Holy Land. The playing levels vary widely, but the cast of characters is utterly compelling: Israeli Jews, Arabs and Christians as well as Americans living in Israel and religious settlers.”

He added that the game is played in a uniquely Jewish way, with some players putting helmet on over their yarmulkes and some player will davening before the game starts.

An important part of the film, Hirschberger said, is the history of the game, which began in 1988 with the establishment of the American Football in Israel (AFI) group. The group grew to more than 90 contact and non-contact flag football teams. In 2005, the AFI established the Israeli Football League (IFL), which is devoted to American-style full-contact tackle football.

“They play an eight-man game [instead of 11 like in the U.S.] because the fields are smaller than the regulation 100-yard football fields that we are used to here in the United States,” he said.

Hirschberger credits Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, and his late wife, Myra, for advancing the game and sports in Israel in general. Although he had some safety concerns initially, Kraft worked with sponsors to build fields and get uniforms for teams in the league. The league honored him in its name, the Kraft Family Israel Football League.

“Kraft Field is likely the only place in the entire Middle East you’ll find Palestinians and Jewish settlers embracing after a big win,” Hirschberger said. The IFL has grown from 25 players in Tel Aviv to a thriving league of more 600 players and 11 teams throughout Israel, he added.

The 2014 league is comprised of the Tel Aviv/Jaffa Sabres, the Tel Aviv Pioneers, the Ramat Hasharon Hammers, the Jerusalem Lions, the Judean Rebels, the Jerusalem Kings, the Haifa Underdogs, the Beersheva Black Swarm, the Petach Tikva Troopers, the Northern Stars and the Rehovot Silverbacks.

“In many ways, Israelis are perfectly suited to play the game of football,” explained Hirschberger. “They have all served their country in the military and love the strategy that goes into the game along with the physical contact.”

While covering the football side of the story was interesting, Hirschberger was also inspired by watching Israeli, Arab, Christian, Thai and Palestinian players work together as teammates. The film focuses on the friendship of three particular players: Jeremy Sable, a Conservative Jew who played youth football in Philadelphia but wouldn’t play on Shabbat and gave the sport up until his family moved to Israel, Saud Kassas an Arab from Jaffa, and Roni Srisuren, a Christian from Thailand who lives with his family in Israel.

“I got the three of them together in a bar and we just talked about everything,” Hirschberger said. “Each young man spoke in detail about growing up with a total lack of understanding of the religion and backgrounds of others. Yet, it was through football these three men became friends for life.”

Hirschberger is taking the film on the festival circuit before he releases it nationwide. He will start at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, head to the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and then the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. He is in discussions with film distributors and hopes to announce local showings soon.

To see previews of “Touchdown Israel” and get the latest news on where it is playing, go to touchdown israel.com.

Art Outside

Ellen Samet answers questions about her jewelry, Creations by El, at Art Outside in Druid Hill Park. (Melissa Gerr)

Ellen Samet answers questions about her jewelry, Creations by El, at Art Outside in Druid Hill Park.
(Melissa Gerr)

In its more than 150-year history, Druid Hill Park has seen transitions, just as many venerable urban locations often do. Yet, it has continued to serve as a green and peaceful respite to many communities in Baltimore and for the Jewish community in particular, up to the early 1960s.

Barbara Shapiro, life-long Baltimorean, city advocate and member of Beth Am Synagogue, intended to conjure up some of that past appreciation for the park and infuse it into the present at the second annual Art Outside, which she organized. The event attracted a diverse crowd, and attendees ran into old friends, as they browsed the more than 80 artist vendors who circled the reservoir on a perfect-weather Sunday. Food trucks and live entertainment, classic car displays and children’s activities were also offered.

“I hope they’ll get the feeling Druid Hill Park is a beautiful place and want to return and get the feeling that we live in one community and we’re all alike,” said Shapiro. She added, “There’s a burgeoning arts community here, it will give people a chance to see the artist’s work.”

Hilda Fisher, 86, has fond memories playing and picnicking in Druid Hill Park. She grew up just three blocks away on Brooks Avenue. Fisher attended Art Outside with her husband Alvin, 93, who grew up in Easterwood Park. The couple now lives in Owings Mills and attends Temple Oheb Shalom.

The art event was quite different in those days, recalled Alvin. “For one, the art was attached to the ironwork, [instead of in tents],” he said. He also remembered renting bicycles from Princeton Cycle (now Princeton Sports) for 50 cents and biking around the reservoir and park. Their daughter Marilyn Fisher, 57, remembered her parents taking her to the park and going to the annual art event as a child. “I remember it as a hip and cool and happening event,” she said.

Watercolor artist Lissa Abrams, 59, a member of Bolton Street Synagogue, exhibited at Art Outside for a second year. Her positive experience at last year’s event, in addition to her fond memories of the park, is why she returned. Abrams’ mother is the late Sen. Rosalie Abrams, and “Druid Hill Park was a big part of [the family’s] life back then, so it’s nice to be back here.”

“The festival is very well organized,” continued Abrams. “And it’s an event that draws people from [all over] the city – there are few things in Baltimore that are as diverse,” she said, citing the [Sunday] Farmers’ Market [on Saratoga Street between Holliday and Gay streets under the Jones Falls Expressway] as another event that draws a diverse crowd. “The organizers are generous. They don’t take a percentage from the sales, so it attracts a wide range of artists.”

The work on display ranged from painting, photography and pottery to prints, textiles and jewelry. Most work was handcrafted, and the artists were on hand to talk about their offerings as well. Twice as many artist vendors participated this year than last, and event organizers estimated the attendance at 5,000 people.

Among special exhibits was the Distinguished Maryland Artists Collection, which contained work from Aaron Sopher, Grace Hartigan, Reuben Kramer and Ann Didusch Schuler among others. Most of the work in the collection was for exhibit only. Also on display in the tent was a poster advertisement from 1953, when Jewish Baltimore artist Amalie Rothschild had originally organized the annual event.

A special hands-on event was featured as attendees were invited to complete a mosaic in cooperation with Art with a Heart, for eventual placement at the Commodore John Rodgers Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore City.

Sheldon Goldseker of Pikesville attended with his friend, and former Baltimore resident, Joel Shor, who now lives in Florida.

Goldseker said the event “was very similar [to what it was in the ‘50s]: “It felt like walking into the past. I remember buying a couple of paintings,” he said, which he still has in his home. Goldseker remembers his father telling him stories about coming to the park with his family for picnics and sleeping overnight on blankets during exceptionally hot summers. “That was before air conditioning,” Goldseker said, laughing.

Artist Ellen Samet, 58, of Creations by El, is a regular exhibitor at art festivals, but she is choosy.

“I attempt to look for vending opportunities that are associated with charity organizations, I look for a social action connection,” said Samet. “But I have really fond memories of Druid Hill Park. I wanted to share my creative jewelry and decided to do it.”

Samet, like many Jewish Baltimoreans who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods, used to frequent the park for family outings. She remembers as a 5-year-old piling into the family’s white station wagon with its red interior to arrive early at the park to secure a picnic table close to the seesaw and swings. Her grandmother, Miriam Falk, would stop at a kosher deli and arrive with tongue, first-cut corned beef, rye bread, challah button rolls and chocolate coffee cake.

“I think it’s nostalgic for me when I think about Druid Hill Park, I like to think of [Art Outside] as bringing back that positive energy of the park,” said Samet. “I think it’s nice to look back at the park’s history and say. “Wow, it doesn’t have to be history, it can be a renewal.’”

The Night of the Walking Wounded

From left: Hanna Eady, Leila Buck and Danny Gavigan in a scene from “The Admission.” (Photo by C. Stanley Photography)

From left: Hanna Eady, Leila Buck and Danny Gavigan in a scene from “The Admission.”
(Photo by C. Stanley Photography)

The recent Theater J workshop presentation of “The Admission” (which ended April 6) stirred plenty of controversy in the Jewish community, with Israeli playwright Motti Lerner hitting a nerve by questioning Israel’s founding narrative.

On April 30, “The Admission” returned to Washington, D.C., with a limited-run production not affiliated with Theater J. Andy Shallal, owner of the D.C. restaurant chain Busboys & Poets, funded the production, renting out the intimate Mead Theater in Studio Theatre’s 14th and P Street complex for a three-week run, which closes May 18.

Lerner again challenges his audience in discomfiting ways. The story centers on the relationship between Giora, a bright rising business professor, and his father Avigdor, a well-established developer, and their encounters with Azmi, an Israeli-Arab restaurant owner, his father and his sister. A fateful encounter forces an examination of the past, specifically a military operation during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence led by a then young troop commander Avigdor. Were the Jewish fighters guilty of, as the play so bluntly puts it, a “massacre,” or, as Avigdor and long-accepted history of the battle claim, something far less ruthless?

The veracity of Lerner’s argument had already been dissected in many places by the time “The Admission” first opened at Theater J, but the question remains: Is the play dramatically sound?

Israeli director Sinai Peter (“Pangs,” “Accident” and “Return to Haifa”) has kept stage business to a minimum, particularly in this smaller space. The barest basic set — rough-hewn wooden tables and chairs set before a canvas drop — and off-the-rack costumes by designer Frida Shoham speak to the workshop nature of the production. A nice, modest touch — particularly relevant in this second showing — is the stone mock-up of an old Arab-style cluster of houses, representing the disputed events of Tantur, the fictional village outside of Haifa. Composer Habib Shehadeh Hanna adds dramatic subtext with his haunting strains featuring Middle-Eastern instruments.

The actors are blessed with Lerner’s muscular and unrestrained language and, in this bare-bones production, with little to distract from the plot, characters and acting.

On stage, Michael Tolaydo has become a familiar Theater J favorite playing the quintessential overbearing macho Israeli father, Avigdor. Tolaydo, too, has become quite comfortable with the Hebrew-like inflections and rising octaves of answering a question with a question that seems so Jewish, and Israeli. As Ibrahim, Hanna Eady provides an authenticity with his Arabic inflected accent and asides. He adds a measure of poignancy by showing that keeping the past hidden can come back to haunt him and his family.

Lerner has created a trio of strong, engaging female characters. As Samya, the Israeli-Arab Ph.D. student, and love interest to Giora, Nora Achrati (the evening I attended) was understated but not as emotionally complex as Leila Buck, who returns to the role this week. Giora’s fiancee Netta, played by Elizabeth Anne Jernigan, has the most thankless task of being second in her boyfriend’s heart. Jernigan shows both strength and vulnerability along with determination to get what she wants, which ultimately is the boss’ son.

Kimberly Schraf’s Yona, the Israeli mother, seems a little too pulled together, a little too collected and dry for the iconic role. She’s the one who, along with wounded son Giora, represents most viscerally Israel’s war losses: the mother grieving for her son Udi, blown up in a tank incident during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. And yet that level of pain doesn’t surface in expected ways. (Schraf will be replaced by Jennifer Mendenhall this week.)

As Azmi, the Arab restaurateur, this production features Joel Reuben Ganz replacing Pomme Koch. Koch enlivened the role with a level of authenticity that Ganz completely misses. His Azmi seems far too pragmatically American, too easygoing and too nice. He needs a simmer beneath the surface, as Azmi represents the Israeli Arab, who is cowed and knows his place in a society that he didn’t create.

Finally, the play’s moral and intellectual center rests on the shoulders of Giora, and Danny Gavigan has imbued him with intensity and focus that pushes him to seek his measure of truth. Giora, hampered by his own battle wounds, must drag himself around on crutches; Gavigan has the unenviable task of physicalizing a segment of Israel that could be called the walking wounded. He’s nonchalant and doesn’t dwell on his handicap, but it, like the conflicts that have wracked the nation, remains ever present.

There’s much about Lerner’s work that can be read on multiple levels. The greatest disservice, perhaps, was seeing “The Admission” as mere historic revivalism. Instead, each of these characters is deeply and irrevocably connected to the others. “The Admission” was meant to provoke.

“The Admission” is on onstage through May 18 at Studio Theatre’s Mead Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. Tickets, $25 to $35, are available at theadmission.bpt.me/.

Mixing it Up

Eric Rosen (provided)

Eric Rosen
(provided)

It was during a family Seder many years ago that theatrical director, producer and playwright Eric Rosen’s free-spirited Jewish father chose to break the news of his secret marriage to Rosen’s Southern Baptist mother. One can only imagine what Elijah must have observed when he visited the Rosen home that night. But whatever the prophet may have seen or heard, the unlikely union produced Rosen, the 43-year-old artistic director of the Kansas City (Mo.) Repertory Theatre and director of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” the Tony Award-winning comedy by Christopher Durang that opened to rave reviews at Center Stage on April 25.

Although Rosen’s mother underwent an Orthodox conversion, after his parents divorced, she drifted back toward her family’s faith. He and his brother grew up in New York and North Carolina and spent time with relatives from both religious traditions. The result, he said, was a feeling of not quite fitting into either world. “I don’t think my father’s family really accepted me and my brother as Jews until we had our bar mitzvahs,” said Rosen.

“It made me ask questions about culture and identity, and I don’t know if I would have been asking those questions if I had grown up in a more homogenous environment,” said Rosen. It also created in Rosen a fascination about Jewish history and the diaspora as well as the Yiddish theater. Rosen believes it was partly his upbringing and the feeling of being “the other” that gave him the “keen sense of observation” that has made him so successful in his work.

“I think a lot of my artistic life is based on the sense of justice and ethics my [Jewish] grandparents taught me,” he explained. “When I came out [as a gay man] I felt I had to do something to move the culture ahead. So in 1995, I started About Face Theatre in Chicago, one of the largest and most successful lesbian and gay theater companies in the country.”

Rosen left About Face in 2008 to take his current position at the Kansas City Rep. Since becoming artistic director there, Rosen has directed “Clay,” “Winesburg, Ohio,” “A Christmas Story, The Musical!,” “Venice,” a musical he co-wrote with Matt Sax, “Cabaret,” “August: Osage County,” “The Whipping Man,” “Death of A Salesman,” and “Romeo and Juliet.” His other writings include “Dream Boy,” “Wedding Play,” “Dancer from the Dance,” “Whitman” and “Undone.” Despite his prolific work in Kansas City and in addition to directing “Vanya” in Baltimore, Rosen has still found time to direct world premieres of “M. Proust” by Mary Zimmerman, “Theater District” and “Take Me Out.”

Currently, Rosen is anxiously awaiting the release of the album from his hit musical, “Venice.”

Barbara Walsh, Susan Rome and Bruce  Randolph Nelson star in Center Stage’s production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” by Christopher  Durang, directed by Eric Rosen. (Richard Anderson)

Barbara Walsh, Susan Rome and Bruce
Randolph Nelson star in Center Stage’s production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” by Christopher Durang, directed by Eric Rosen.
(Richard Anderson)

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” tells the story of Vanya (Bruce Randolph Nelson) and his adopted sister, Sonia (Barbara Walsh), who live together in the comfortable family home where they grew up. Having spent “the best years of their lives” caring for their aging parents, they are filled with bitterness and regret about what they might have done with themselves. When their movie-star sister, Masha (Susan Rome) shows up at the house with her hot young actor boyfriend (Zachary Andrews), hilarity ensues, as each of the siblings struggle with their own inner demons and their relationships with one another. Based on the plays of Anton Chekhov, and named for his characters, Durang’s script is chock full of allusions to the Russian playwright’s classic works.

When Rosen saw “Vanya” on Broadway, he knew right away that he wanted to bring the show to Kansas City. “It had everything wonderful about Durang married to everything wonderful about Chekhov. I don’t do a lot of picking up last season’s plays but this was an exception for me. And ours couldn’t be more different than the Broadway production,” he said. “The original was so ‘starry.’ It had Sigourney Weaver playing Masha and David Hyde Pierce from “Frasier” playing Vanya, stars everyone knew and we couldn’t repeat it. I needed to have real pros that people wouldn’t necessarily know.”

Some of those “pros” were Nelson, who is actually quite well known to Baltimore audiences, and Rome, who is known for both acting, directing, as the former director of performing arts at the Baltimore Lab School and as an artist-in-residence for the JCC’s Maccabi Artsfest.

Though it may come as a surprise to some readers and audiences, Nelson said that Chekhov meant works such as “The Cherry Orchard,” “The Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya” and “The Three Sisters,” all of which center on the desolate lives of their angst-ridden characters, to be comedies. In contrast, Durang’s “Vanya” is an unmistakable laugh riot. And while those in the know will find the script’s references to Chekhov especially amusing, Nelson believes the family dynamics portrayed in “Vanya” will be relatable for all audiences.

Neither Nelson, nor Susan Rome, who plays Masha, the movie star in the show, saw Durang’s play prior to being cast. Both went about preparing for the role in their own ways. Nelson said he tends to be more of an “outside in actor” whereas most actors start by figuring out a character’s inner workings prior to his voice and physical traits. “So I’m going to figure out how the character walks and what his hair looks like. There’s a lot of shrinking and slowing down in playing Vanya. I gravitate to wild mayhem, so it’s a challenge to play a character like this.”

Rome, who studied Chekhov extensively in college, said she immersed herself in Chekhov, reading a book of his letters to his wife, actress Olga Knipper. “He was fervent, and he wrote about acting and love. They [the letters] so matched with the plays,” said Rome. “I’ve always thought Chekhov was funny, in the way life is funny, the ironies, the extremes …” Playing the role of Masha has been fun for Rome. “Being that huge in an entrance. That’s so not who I am. She’s obnoxious but there’s this vulnerability under the surface. I want people to love hating her.”

Rosen said he is thrilled with the cast he has put together for the Baltimore production. Some of the show’s characters, Spike (Zachary Andrews,) Nina (Emily Peterson) and Sonia (Barbara Walsh) are played by the same actors who starred in the Kansas City production. “I love anything Center Stage does, and I am a huge fan of Kwame [Kwei-Armah, artistic director of Center Stage]. It’s been a great, joyful experience — like a two-month love fest!”

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through May 25.

For tickets and additional information, visit centerstage.org.

Manischewitz All-Star Cookoff

050914_food1To choose the very best of the best, the Manischewitz All-Star Cookoff began with the finalists from its past seven contests. From these, four were chosen. They submitted recipes for some of the most delicious creations I have ever tasted — and I have tasted a lot of food from contest recipes!

The final Manischwewitz all-star for 2014 was Jamie Brown-Miller from Napa, Calif., for her palate-pleasing, contemporary fusion of traditional Southern chicken and waffles.

The winning recipe makes innovative use of Manischewitz products: Potato pancake mix is the base for the waffles, and matzo ball mix coats the chicken. Smart and delicious.

Jamie Brown-Miller demonstrates her award-winning recipe. (photos provided)

Jamie Brown-Miller demonstrates her award-winning recipe.
(photos provided)

Another finalist, Dr. Joe Carver, won raves for Bubbie’s Noodle Studel. Carver’s dish was creamy and delicious with a few unusual ingredient combinations. The luscious kugel-type dish was definitely not your bubbie’s kugel, but it was a great dairy entrée that even your bubbie would love.

Back home I had to put my own creativity into play for Pesach. Although hard-boiled eggs are always a Seder standard, many people (especially my health-conscious kids) now leave the yolks and only eat the whites. What to do with all those yummy hard-boiled yolks?

I began to wonder what would happen if I put them in the freezer. I scanned the Web, and sure enough, I found recipes using freshly defrosted hard-boiled yolks. I found a cookie recipe that was so easy I couldn’t believe it. They were rich and included butter, but those cookies were as good as any shortbread cookies I’ve ever made. I call them the ultimate recycled shortbread cookies.

Manischewitz will now hold its contest every year. Pull up your old family heirloom recipes and give them a new twist. To enter, visit manischewitz.com.

$25,000 Winner: Waffled Latkes With Matzo Fried Chicken

Better-Than-Shortbread Easy Cookies
Bubbie’s Noodle Strudel

Tips & Tricks

  • Usually recipes calling for egg noodles can use wide, medium and curled or straight, depending on your choice.
  • Extra-firm tofu must be labeled as such when a recipe calls for it.
  • You can freeze egg yolks for later use. Cool first, and wrap them tightly in plastic zip-lock bag

Ilene Spector is a local freelance writer.