Elf Magic Lets Loose

To a clueless onlooker, it might look like the members of Elf Magic are engaged in live-action, spontaneous beat poetry.

“I’m a Cup O’ Noodles!” “I’m a fork!” “I’m a spoon!” “I’m a knife!” “Knife stays.”

“I’m a knife!” “I’m O.J. Simpson!” “I’m a glove!” “Glove stays.”

The warm-up, called “I’m a Tree,” which began the exercise, was one of several the improv comedy troupe performed to practice improvisational theater and loosen up for rehearsal.

“It’s more about getting the verbal diarrhea,” said Elf Magic member Keith Becraft.

What followed was a puppet la ronde, with one group member speaking through a puppet and another having a conversation with that puppet. Puppet characters included a drug-peddling snowman, a jilted lover reminiscing about reenacting scenes from Prince’s “Purple Rain” movie and a troupe member, Jen Ginsberg, playing a Jewish grandmother proud that Ginsberg is finally going to be in the Baltimore Jewish Times, although not in the engagements section.

This was all in preparation for the night’s Harold, a long-form improvisation with three recurring unrelated scenes, each scene repeating three times. The Harold is Elf Magic’s specialty.

“It’s a way to have some sort of consistency when everything is made up on the spot,” said Becraft.

Elf Magic performs at 11 p.m. on Saturday, May 10, at the inaugural Charm City Comedy Festival, which was co-founded by Elf Magic coach and creator Megan Wills and Becraft.

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The troupe, which has been together for about a year, is Wills’ “dream team” of improvisational performers, most of whom were handpicked from the classes she teaches at Baltimore Improv Group.

“They are really all bluntly honest people and performers,” said Wills, who coaches through her own company, Improvocateur Coaching. “And that’s what makes them funny.”

For half of the members, that brutal honesty comes with what Wills called “the unique point-of-view of the Jewish culture.”

Elf Magic member Jason Steinberg, who grew up in Pikesville, said his upbringing has informed his comedic career from Jewish humor to the different people he met growing up.

“My sense of humor was pretty much born by my dad and grandfather, members of the tribe they be,” said Steinberg. “It’s real people who are coming through when we get Jew-y.”

For Alison Schlenger, improv classes were a way of loosening up.

“I think I realized I was taking myself way too seriously,” she said. It seems to have worked, as Schlenger spent the rehearsal doing yoga poses, cracking jokes between scenes and fit perfectly into the role of a male truck driver. On the Jewish aspect, Schlenger said “it’s what you know” in her best Jewish grandfather voice.

“I think there was something magical that happened at our first show,” she said.

While most of the group members are fairly new to improv, Wills picked them because of the natural talent she sensed.

The troupe’s newest member, Addie Maxwell, who has been with Elf Magic for one month and started improv classes in the fall, still doesn’t quite understand why Wills likes her so much.

“I’m really happy she thinks I’m great,” Maxwell quipped.

The talent Wills sought translated into a vibrant group in which members naturally play off each other.

“We’re all very comfortable with each other and can play different characters,” said Ginsberg, who got into improv to get over her stage fright.

Elf Magic will perform alongside improv and standup comedy acts from Washington, Philadelphia and Boston, with headliners The Amie and Kristen Show and ShawnMikael(s).

“They are dynamic duos,” said Wills.

The festival also features sketch comedy and improv workshops, and Schlenger will be leading yoga sessions before workshops.

The festival is being run through the Charm City Comedy Project, for which Wills is the marketing and festival director and Becraft is the executive director. It’s being held at Zissimo’s in Hampden as well as the 2640 Space in Charles Village from May 8 to May 11.

Part of the idea for the festival came from Becraft, who noticed that it’s hard for independent comedy acts to get booked in other cities.

“Nobody was really bringing in troupes from out of town,” he said. “The impression I get is we give a warm room.” He noted that Washington troupes face a lot of competition and more critical audiences.

For Wills, it’s all about the 73 acts the festival will feature.

“We started this festival with the aim of continuing our mission to promote visibility and accessibility to improv in Baltimore,” she said.

Captain Kirk Stays Relevant

William Shatner (Manfred Baumann)

William Shatner
(Manfred Baumann)

On April 24, audiences around the country had the chance to feel what it is like to be William Shatner, the Jewish actor best known for his portrayal of Captain James T. Kirk on “Star Trek.”

For one night only, Shatner’s one-man show “Shatner’s World” — which was on Broadway and toured Canada, Australia and the United States — was presented in nearly 700 movie theaters nationwide. Sponsored by Fathom Events and Priceline.com (for whom Shatner has famously served as a pitchman), the critically acclaimed show gives audiences a behind-the-scenes look at Shatner’s career and life.

Born to Conservative Jewish parents in the Cote Saint-Luc neighborhood of Montreal, Shatner’s path to stardom — traced in the film — took him from trained Shakespearean actor to cultural icon. The son of Joseph Shatner, a clothing manufacturer, and Anne (née Garmaise), William’s grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Austria, Poland, Hungary and Ukraine.

“Being Jewish is a part of what I am,” Shatner said in an interview. “What I am is what I bring to the world as an artist. … As in many cases of people I know, where their religion is everything to them and is very imperative, for me being Jewish is not, but being spiritual is.”

Shatner has taken an eclectic journey as an actor, musician, singer, author, film director, spokesman and comedian. He gained worldwide fame for his portrayal of Captain Kirk, commander of the Federation starship USS Enterprise, in the science fiction television series “Star Trek” from 1966 to 1969, “Star Trek: The Animated Series” from 1973 to 1974 and in seven of the subsequent “Star Trek” feature films from 1979 to 1994. Shatner wrote a series of books chronicling his experiences playing Captain Kirk and being a part of “Star Trek” and has co-written several novels set in the “Star Trek” universe. He also authored a series of science fiction novels called “TekWar” that were adapted for television.

Besides his “Star Trek” role, Shatner played the eponymous veteran police sergeant in the television show “T. J. Hooker” from 1982 to 1986. Afterward, he hosted the reality-based television series “Rescue 911” from 1989 to 1996, which won a People’s Choice Award for Favorite New TV Dramatic Series. He has since worked as a musician, author, director and celebrity pitchman. From 2004 to 2008, he starred as attorney Denny Crane in the television dramas “The Practice” and its spin-off “Boston Legal,” for which he won two Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe Award.

“The theme of “Shatner’s World” is the joy of life, saying yes to life,” Shatner said. “What I’m able to do by the end of the evening is involve you the audience in this joyful experience about life. Life has many facets, including grief, sorrow and death. I go through all that. But it is a joyful experience in the end, with multimedia visual effects as well as me speaking. I talk about gorillas and motorcycles and comedy and music and discuss ‘Star Trek’ and horses. The multiplicity of subject matters is there. It’s a very funny show.”

Frequently involved in charitable causes, Shatner’s excitement for horses led him to the Central Kentucky Riding for Hope organization and the Hollywood Charity Horse Show. The Priceline.com Hollywood Charity Horse Show, sponsored by Wells Fargo, was scheduled for Saturday night, April 26.

“It’s a big party with a five-day horse show, and we raise a lot of money for children’s charities,” Shatner said. “Some of those charities are riding therapeutic programs.”

Shatner noted how research shows the therapeutic effect of putting people with certain disabilities or impairments on a horse.

“Frequently they’re aided beyond anything you can guess,” he said. “I’ve seen children who couldn’t walk, walk. And children who couldn’t talk, talk. What we’ve also found is that applying this to returning veterans who have problems not dissimilar to the children — physically, emotionally, socially — riding therapy really helps them.”

In 2008, the Jewish Music Group released “Exodus: An Oratorio in Three Parts,” a dramatic biblical reading by Shatner accompanied by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. He is also still at work on “The Shiva Club,” a movie about crashing a shiva — the seven-day mourning period in Judaism that follows the loss of an immediate family member.

“It’s about two comics who go to a shiva to try to find an agent,” Shatner said.

Despite his various roles, it will be “Star Trek” that Shatner is remembered for. In his role as Kirk, he famously kissed actress Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) in the Nov. 22, 1968 episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren.” The episode is cited as the first example of an interracial kiss between a white man and a black woman on a scripted television show in the U.S.

“I’m told that that is the case, that my kissing Nichelle Nichols, who happens to be black, did all that,” Shatner said. “I’m not sure if it’s as dramatic as that. If that’s what people say, I’m going along for the ride. If it wasn’t for ‘Star Trek’ I wouldn’t be speaking to you today, so I’m etern-ally grateful to be given the opportunity to do all the things that I’ve done since ‘Star Trek.’”

Dan Diamond, senior vice-president of Fathom Events, said Shatner “takes fans on a unique and exciting journey through his ‘Shatner’s World’ show.”

“This remarkable performance by the legendary William Shatner is a perfect fit for the big screen,” said Diamond.

While the show charts the path of the joys and sorrows commonly part of anyone’s life story, it is a positive experience overall, Shatner said.

“Everything can be termed positively, and that’s what I attempt to do in this one-man show,” he said. “This one-man show is very important to me. It’s the culmination of a long career.”

Crossing Lines

Woody Allen makes a rare acting appearance in John Turturro’s new movie. (Courtesy of Mongrel Media)

Woody Allen makes a rare acting appearance in John Turturro’s new movie.
(Courtesy of Mongrel Media)

My big thing was to not have him wear khaki pants and an Army coat,” John Turturro said with a broad smile. “And I got him out of that. I said, ‘That’s not in my color scheme. I’m an Italian director.’”

This dash of bravado might sound pretentious, or even ludicrous, on paper. But when it comes from a tall, impeccably groomed man in an elegant blue velvet suit — double breasted, blue shirt buttoned to the top, no tie — it seems perfectly reasonable.

For his fifth feature behind the camera, “Fading Gigolo,” the renowned actor and filmmaker solicited ongoing — and ruthless — feedback from another New York icon, Woody Allen, during the lengthy screenwriting process. Allen accepted a rare acting assignment in the film, hence the discussion of his costume.

Allen plays a newly retired Manhattan bookstore owner who, in need of money, convinces his friend, floral arranger Fioravante (Turturro), to provide sexual services to affluent women. Murray claims a fee for arranging the liaisons, which take Fioravante in an unexpected and ultimately poignant direction.

“Fading Gigolo” starts out as a slightly absurd sex comedy and deepens into a mature, empathetic study of big-city loneliness against a backdrop of cross-cultural and ethnic identity. The film opens nationwide today.

The crucial relationship in “Fading Gigolo” is between Fioravante and Avigal (French actress Vanessa Paradis), an astute mother of six and the widow of a Chasidic rabbi. Sex isn’t part of the equation, but Dovi, a protective and covetous neighborhood Satmar watchman (a touching Liev Schreiber), can’t know that.

“I met all these people who’ve left the [Satmar] community” in the course of research, Turturro said in a recent interview at a San Francisco hotel. “They’re like the strays of the community. They gather in this place, people who left and people who hadn’t left who just went there to see what was going on.”

Paradis got to know one woman in particular who had left the Satmar community and explained the various directives such as keeping her hair concealed under a wig.

“All these things are made up by men,” Turturro declared. “Women didn’t make these rules. And to me, that says it all.”

“Fading Gigolo” is unambiguously respectful toward observant Jewish practice while inviting us to empathize with a woman trying to reconcile autonomy and conformity.

“Avigal is not looking to escape,” Turturro explained. “She’s just looking to receive.”

“Fading Gigolo” climaxes with a religious trial in which Murray is confronted with the query, “Are you proud to be a Jew?” It’s the question we’ve long wanted Woody Allen to answer onscreen, and at that moment it’s difficult not to conflate the character and the actor.

Turturro’s experience of Judaism goes well beyond growing up in New York and now living in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. His wife is Jewish, and his son went to Hebrew school, and Turturro confides that he’s spent a fair amount of time in Reform synagogues.

He has played several Jewish characters onscreen, most famously in the Coen Brothers’ “Miller’s Crossing” and “Barton Fink,” and immersed himself in the life of Primo Levi to portray the Italian-Jewish Holocaust survivor in Francesco Rosi’s “The Truce” (1997).

“If you’re raised a Catholic, you realize there’s not a debate that goes on,” Turturro said. “And if you’re raised a Jew, there’s a debate that goes on. And I really like that. Therein lies one of the greatnesses of Judaism.”

At Allen’s behest, Turturro brushed up on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories while he wrote the “Fading Gigolo” screenplay. But after all his various and diligent research, certain things came down to intuition — and style.

“I only chose Satmar because I liked the hats the best,” Turturro said. “I don’t want the Borsalino. I’m Italian. It’s an aesthetic choice, understand. That’s how it goes with me. The hat dictates. That’s it.”

“Fading Gigolo” opens today. (Rated R for some sexual content, language and brief nudity. 90 minutes)

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

A Flair for Broadcasting

Heinrich on set with Meir Einstein (left) and Ron Kofman, two of Sport5's top analysts. (Photo courtesy of Sport5)

Heinrich on set with Meir Einstein (left) and Ron Kofman, two of Sport5’s top analysts.
(Photo courtesy of Sport5)

Sport5, or Sport Hamesh as it is known in Israel, is in many ways like ESPN in the United States. It is a combination of five cable and satellite sports networks that cover both amateur and professional sports from around the globe; but instead of English, it offers its content in Hebrew.

At the age of 29, Tal Heinrich has become one of Sport5’s most popular sportscasters. She has covered the top events in the world of sports, including the Summer Olympics in London and Beijing, the European Basketball Championships and the Euro 2012 Soccer Championships. And despite her young age, she has served as both anchor and host of the network, in addition to being a field reporter. Heinrich has earned critical acclaim in Israel, as well as throughout Europe, for her work as a sports broadcaster. But it is the job of role model to thousands of Jewish girls that brings her the most personal satisfaction.

“To meet in person the young women who stop me on the street or approach me at an event and talk to them about becoming a sports broadcaster means that I am really connecting with them,” said Heinrich. “I do not for one moment take for granted that my job as a broadcaster inspires girls who want to follow me into the profession. [This is] the biggest compliment to my work and much more important than any award that I might win.

“I should also point out that we have a very talented staff of women both in front of and behind the camera at Sport5 that all work to inspire young women to enter the sports broadcasting business,” she added.

So how did Heinrich become part of Israel’s top sports network?

“I started watching basketball when I was in high school. A good friend and a neighbor of mine was a professional player, so I was following his career and cheering along with my high school friends. After I was done with my mandatory military service with the Israel Defense Forces as an Arabic translator, I knew I wanted to work in the sports TV industry,” she explained. “So at the age of 20, I started freelancing for national Channel 1 as a sideline reporter on Eurocup basketball games. When the season ended, I moved to the premier sports channel in Israel, Sport5. The network has been great to me, and I have the chance to work with some of the most talented and passionate sports broadcasters in the business. It is a true honor to be part of such wonderful network.”

Basketball provided Heinrich with a role model for becoming a broadcaster.

“ESPN/ABC college and NBA analyst Doris Burke has had the biggest influence on my career. She is extremely professional, always asks the best questions, has a rich repertoire of knowledge and is simply a very nice person,” said Heinrich. “I should add that during last year’s NBA Finals, a colleague of mine had met her and told her how much I appreciate the work she does. Doris took the time to record a video message to me, which was fed back to our studio here in Tel Aviv. I must say that I still keep it on my computer and play it whenever I need a little extra inspiration.”

It is in many ways still tough for a woman to break into sports broadcasting in the United States. According to Heinrich, the situation is reversed in the Jewish state.

“In my opinion, it is easier for a woman to start a career within the sports TV industry of Israel than it is for a man,” she said. “However, once you are already working in Israel, it is much more difficult for a woman to gain legitimacy and prestige in the eyes of the viewers, fans, athletes and coaches than it is for a man. The ‘rookie’ stage lasts longer for women. Therefore, I find my work very challenging. That said, I always love a challenge.”

While it has been sports that has made Heinrich a household name in Israel, she sees her future possibly including another area of interest. She loves politics, and so it seems natural that viewers of CNN International have had the opportunity to see her work on that network as well.

“I have been working at Sport5 for over eight years, and as of late, I have also been contributing content relating to current events and politics in the Middle East to CNN International via their Jerusalem Bureau,” she said. “I enjoy both lines of work, and I believe the experience I have been accumulating is instrumental in achieving my dream job, which is working at the highest level of reporting, covering either news or sports.”

Heinrich admits that her dream job might take her out of Israel.

“Being an NBA fan and appreciating its extensive international audience, I would love to cover live NBA broadcasts, discussing the athletes and their strategy in the pregame and the postgame shows, channeling my experience at Sport5, where I did similar work, but for a broader audience on a bigger stage,” said Heinrich. “But my passion for sports is matched by my interest in international politics. … I would love to put my language and reporting skills to use and be a part of a broadcast that will discuss pressing matters in a balanced way. So while that might mean a job in the United States or perhaps in Europe, I feel that the outstanding experience that I have gained at Sport5 has prepared me to be ready when the time comes for that dream job.”

Be sure to follow Heinrich on Sport5 at sport5.co.il and on YouTube.

Jim Williams is an area freelance writer.

Striking Out

A cotton candy vendor roams the Wrigley Field stands in 1994.  (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

A cotton candy vendor roams the Wrigley Field stands in 1994.
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Longtime fans of the Chicago Cubs know there are a few mainstays they can expect when they visit Wrigley Field: ivy on the outfield walls, a strict no-wave policy rigorously enforced by fans and, most days, disappointing play by the hometown team.

But there’s one little-known quirk at Wrigley that appears to be fading away, as the ballpark, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last week, enters its second century: the numerous Orthodox Jewish vendors who sell food and drinks in the stands.

A few subtle signs could give them away: a stray tzitzit strand flapping out of a jersey, a name tag reading Simcha, the mincha prayer minyan that used to take place in the outfield stands before or after games.

No one seems to know quite how it began, but for decades Wrigley Field vending was a redoubt of Orthodox Jews, most of them teenagers or early 20-somethings and almost all of them men.

“I went to high school at Ida Crown Jewish Academy, and it was just like a rite of passage there,” said Jon Blumberg, 41, an investment fund manager who vended for five or six summers beginning in 1989. “Once you were at the age where you no longer were going to camp or didn’t want to be a counselor, it was just what guys did.”

The tradition long predates Blumberg. The late Rabbi Moshe Kushner, the Chicago Rabbinical Council leader and Camp Moshava-Wisconsin director who died last October at age 68, vended in his youth.

Twenty years ago, it wasn’t unusual to have upward of 25 Orthodox Jewish vendors working the stands at Wrigley, selling everything from beer to peanuts.

It was seen as an ideal summer job for observant teenagers. The ballpark is a short ride from Chicago’s Orthodox neighborhoods, it wasn’t too onerous to join the union required to vend, you could make a decent amount of money in just four hours’ work, and vendors could choose when they wanted to work and when they didn’t — perfect both for Sabbath observers and teens uninterested in committing to a regular job.

Plus, there was the baseball.

“This was a dream come true,” said David Porush, 40, a lawyer who vended for a couple of years starting at age 16. “I’m a huge Cubs fan. I love baseball. I love Wrigley Field. If you were a very big fan like me, I’d make $30 or $40 and then sit down to watch the game. But if you were a very aggressive vendor, you could make a lot of money.”

Danny Altschul, now a partner at the accounting firm McGladrey, credits his five years of vending with helping pay for his wedding and the down payment on his house in the Chicago neighborhood of West Rogers Park.

“For those few hours you were out there it wasn’t the time to be lazy,” said Altschul, who could make up to $300 on a good day. “You work hard, try to work swiftly and take advantage of an opportunity when you’re in a commission-based business. It helped me pay for college.”

Like many of the vendors, Altschul also hawked wares at Chicago’s other sports arenas. He remembers fondly the day he managed to sell 31 loads of pop (Midwest parlance for soda) at a Cubs-Astros day game and then headed downtown to Comiskey Park to work a White Sox night game.

Porush says he wanted to vend ever since he was a little kid, when he’d watch Orthodox vendors at Wrigley slip free beer, ice cream and peanuts to his father, a teacher at the Hillel Torah North Suburban Day School. The vendors were former students.

David Landsman, an accountant who now lives in New Jersey, used to cut school to vend on Opening Day and used a similar tactic to avoid trouble.

“In Chicago, everyone would play hooky on Opening Day,” Landsman recalled. “As long as I gave the assistant principal something from what I was selling, it was fine.”

In recent years, the stream of young Orthodox Jewish vendors has slowed to a trickle. Seniors at the two Orthodox high schools that served as the main feeders — Ida Crown and Skokie Yeshiva — said through an administrator that students aren’t becoming vendors anymore. Vending isn’t as lucrative as it once was; the rising number of night games makes the job less suitable for teens and the setting isn’t that compelling to young people.

“My kids, they don’t get it,” said Blumberg. “They don’t understand why you’d ever go to a Cubs game because they’re so pathetic. The ones who want to go say they want to go to the Sox.”

The number of young Orthodox Jewish vendors at Wrigley has shrunk to just four or five, plus about an equal number of older full-timers, according to Joe Bulgatz, an Orthodox Jew in his 50s who has been vending at Wrigley and other sports venues in Chicago since 2004.

“Between the Cubs’ performance and the economy, a lot of people are just saying, ‘Hey, it’s not worth it,’ ” he said.

With so many God-fearing Jews vending — and sometimes praying — at Wrigley, the Cubs’ dismal performance might seem like a challenge of faith.

Porush says he doesn’t see it that way.

“I’d like to think we’re getting our reward in the next world,” he said. “I’ve seen lots of heartache as a Cubs fan, and I think it is parallel to being a God-fearing Jew.

“We live through difficult times and all we can say is, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ A Cubs fan is always saying, ‘Wait till next year.’ That’s who we are.”

So what will happen first — the coming of the Messiah or a Cubs World Series title (the last was in 1908)?

“I really hope Moshiach comes first,” Porush said, “because the Cubs aren’t going to be a contender for at least another two years.”

The Art of the Craft

Unique handcrafted works, process demonstrations, music and artisan foods all come swirling together to make up the 38th annual Sugarloaf Crafts Festival this weekend in Timonium, just north of Baltimore.

The 250 jury-selected artists will be exhibiting their works in ceramics, sculpture, glass, jewelry, fashion, furniture, home décor, leather, fine art and photography. In addition to art for sale, the public will be invited to watch the artists at work, perhaps one of the more unique aspects of the festival.

“Seeing [the demonstration and] the educational aspect brings a whole different level of appreciation,” said DeAnn Verdier, president of Sugarloaf Craft Festivals. “Otherwise it’s hard for people to imagine the hand you just shook made the piece you’re going to buy. You can watch them take a lump of clay and create a beautiful form before your eyes.”

Artisan food exhibitors will be bringing candies, chocolates, soups, breads, jams, dips, syrups and olive oils for visitors to sample and purchase as well.

Plate by John Akkus

Plate by John Akkus

John Akkus, originally from Istanbul and now living in Virginia, has been participating at Sugarloaf since 1996. He is the artist behind A Touch of Silver and will be selling everything from jewelry to Judaica, as well as demonstrating his unique artistry called metal spinning. Metal spinning combines spinning with a Turkish method of engraving, primarily using copper.

“The metal spinning exists, but not very many people do this anymore,” explained Akkus. “It started in the 1800s but then was lost, and high tech took over. [The technique] is very different and exclusive, and it’s interesting to watch.”

Smadar Livne, originally from Israel, now works from her studio in Owings Mills. Present at Sugarloaf for about 20 years, Livne is best known for her large acrylic paintings on canvas, utilizing mixed media and featuring bold contemporary colors.

“Every time, I come [to Sugarloaf] with a new series,” said Livne. “People will be expecting to see my bold colors; this time I’m going with pastel — and gold and silver.”

Livne explained she is still working some of the same themes, but the change in palette evokes a very different feeling. “It’s very fresh and light,” she said. “And the gold and silver … because of the metallic, it becomes a totally different painting.”

Menorah by Olga Goldin

Menorah by Olga Goldin

Olga Goldin, her husband and two young sons came to Baltimore from Belarus. This year will be her 14th at the festival. She creates from clay, applying multiple glazes and firings; her pieces are all hand built. She makes Judaica, such as menorahs and Kiddush cups, but is perhaps best known for her figurines.

“Customers collect my pieces,” said Goldin. “They buy figures with instruments — they’re little characters with a 1920s and 1930s shtetl feeling. When I was living in Belarus, in Minsk, I would see the pieces in my grandparents’ house. Those memories have influenced my work.”

Livne hopes that the public will not only shop, but also take the time to talk to artists and experience the event.

“They don’t know what’s behind the scenes,” said Livne. “The artists all work very hard. They create from nothing — it’s about the feeling. Try to get the creative inspirational feeling from this event. … Take the time to talk to the artists and get to know what’s behind what they’re making.”

The Sugarloaf Crafts Festival will be held Friday, April 25 and Saturday, April 26 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday, April 27 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Maryland State Fairgrounds, 2200 York Road in Timonium.

Admission is $8 when purchased online and $10 at the door, and a ticket is good for all three days of the show. Children under 12 are free. Free parking is available on site.

For more information, including exhibitor lists, directions and admission discounts, visit sugarloafcrafts.com or call 800-210-9900.


Jewish camp trend-spotting

With a Manhattan locale and air-conditioned dorms, the 92nd Street Y's  Passport NYC camp is not exactly rustic. (Passport NYC)

With a Manhattan locale and air-conditioned dorms, the 92nd Street Y’s
Passport NYC camp is not exactly rustic.
(Passport NYC)

Nostalgia about summer traditions notwithstanding, Jewish camps have changed dramatically from a generation ago.

Camp’s value for Jewish education and identity-building is now a major focus of communal attention. Major Jewish foundations, federations and organizations are investing heavily in the sector.

Many camps have become more intentional about incorporating Jewish learning, Shabbat and Israel into their programming. They’ve also evolved to meet families’ changing expectations and demands: offering a wider range of choices of all kinds (from food to activity to session length); providing more frequent updates and communications to parents; accommodating numerous medical requirements and allergies; and placing greater emphasis on safety and security.

At the same time, the Jewish camping field is becoming more professionalized. The job of camp director has been shifting from a seasonal gig to year-round career, and counselors are receiving more intensive training.

With all this change in the Jewish camp world, here are 10 specific trends we have noticed:

Shorter sessions: Once upon a time, summer camp meant the entire summer, with the majority of campers attending for seven, eight or even 10 weeks. Now it is the rare child or teen who spends the full summer at camp (or at one camp), and most programs offer multiple sessions, ranging in length from just six days to seven weeks. “Our three-week session has always sold out more quickly than the four-week, and our new two-week session has been a quick hit as well,” said Vivian Stadlin, co-director of Eden Village Camp in Putnam Valley, N.Y.

Specialized programs: Whether a child’s passion is sports, the environment, outdoor adventure or science and technology, there’s a Jewish camp for that. An incubator under the auspices of the Foundation for Jewish Camp spurred the creation of five specialty camps in 2010 (including Eden Village, which is focused on the environment) and another four that will open this summer. The idea is to attract kids who might not otherwise consider a Jewish camp and to show them they can combine their passion with Judaism. Increasingly, established general-interest Jewish camps are adding specialty tracks and electives. For example, the New Jersey Y camps offer a science program and various sports programs, while Ramah in the Poconos has run basketball clinics and a tennis academy.

Healthier food: Serving healthy, locally sourced food is a part of the mission of some specialty camps like the new health-and-wellness-focused Camp Zeke and was a component of Ramah Outdoor Adventure from its beginnings in 2010. In addition, many established Jewish camps have been redoing their menus to make them more nutritious and environmentally friendly: adding salad bars, replacing “bug juice” with water, offering more vegetarian fare and even planting their own organic vegetable gardens.

More affordable options: The Foundation for Jewish Camp recently introduced a new program called BunkConnect that enables first-time campers from middle- and lower-income families to search for a variety of discounted Jewish summer camp options. While BunkConnect is currently only available in the Northeast, New England and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States, the foundation hopes to expand it in future years. In addition, most Jewish overnight camps offer financial aid and the One Happy Camper Program, initiated in 2006, offers grants for all first-time campers regardless of need. So far 50,000 children have received One Happy Camper grants.

Broadening definition of camp:  While rural settings and rustic accommodations are still the norm, two specialty camps — the Union for Reform Judaism’s Six Points Sports Academy and Six Points Science & Technology — are located on boarding school campuses, and another, the 92nd Street Y’s Passport NYC, is in the middle of Manhattan. Passport NYC, in which participants do internships and live in air-conditioned dorms, and Six Points Science blur the boundary between “camp” and “summer program,” while programs like USY on Wheels and Adamah Adventures, which operate under the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s umbrella, blur the boundary between “camp” and “teen travel.”

Day camps brought into the tent: While the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah has long operated both day and overnight camps, Jewish day camps generally haven’t interacted much with overnight camps, nor have they received the same level of attention from Jewish communal leaders or philanthropists as their sleep-away counterparts. That is changing as this year, for the first time, leaders of Jewish day camps are being included in the bi-annual Leaders Assembly of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The foundation is finalizing plans with UJA-Federation of New York to establish an incubator developing six specialty day camps in the region. In addition, the Union for Reform Judaism is opening its first day camp this summer. Meanwhile, the philanthropic group Areivim is funding Hebrew-immersion day camps throughout the United States.

Inclusion of children with disabilities: An estimated 13 percent of children have some sort of disability, but only 2 percent of Jewish campers do, according to research conducted last year by the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The Jewish camping world is looking to make the camping experience accessible to more children with disabilities, including them at regular camps wherever possible, rather than segregating them at separate facilities. The foundation is currently working to raise $31 million for a multi-pronged effort to serve more such children by offering relevant staff training, revamping physical facilities to make them accessible, and creating vocational education and life-skills training programs at multiple camps.

Year-round programming: Growing numbers of camps are offering educational programming during the school year through partnerships with institutions like synagogues and day schools. Such partnerships often involve  sharing staff members, under the auspices of new programs like Ramah Service Corps and the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Nadiv initiative. In addition, camps within easy commuting distance of major metropolitan areas and ones in temperate regions or with winterized facilities are increasingly hosting a range of family/community programs in the off seasons: Eden Village, just 50 miles north of Manhattan, runs a home-school program and weekend family/community programs throughout the year, while nearby Surprise Lake Camp, in Cold Spring, N.Y. even runs High Holiday services and Passover Seders. Camp Ramah Darom in Georgia runs a week-long Passover retreat.

Family camp: Family camps have been around for decades, but now virtually every Jewish overnight camp offers at least one family-camp session, usually a three-day weekend, each year. A number of camps “got into the business just trying to use the facility more, but it wound up being a great recruiting tool,” said Foundation for Jewish Camp CEO Jeremy Fingerman. Several camps also host sessions specifically for families of children with disabilities. While traditionally marketed to camp-age kids and their parents, Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, national director of the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah network, said several Ramah camps are considering adding sessions for Ramah alumni with younger children. “It’s a relatively inexpensive family vacation,” he noted.

Pew-fueled camp enthusiasm: In response to last year’s much-discussed Pew Research Center survey of American Jews, a wide range of Jewish communal leaders have offered their prescriptions for engaging more youth. While these leaders may differ on many issues, almost all have cited Jewish summer camp as something that “works” and is a worthy investment. Jewish camps are already popular with funders, but all the pro-camp buzz will likely generate even more dollars for the field.

Still Funny (After All These Years)

Comedian/actor Paul Reiser has fond memories of Baltimore and his role in “Diner.” (Provided)

Comedian/actor Paul Reiser has fond memories of Baltimore and his role in “Diner.”

Baltimore will always hold a special place in comedian, actor and author Paul Reiser’s heart. It was here after all, where “Diner,” Reiser’s first movie — and the first of filmmaker Barry Levinson’s trilogy tribute to his hometown — was filmed and took place. In “Diner,” released in 1982, Reiser played Modell, a hilariously neurotic young man who spends most of his time hanging out with his friends at a local diner. Modell and the other male characters in “Diner” were based upon Levinson’s own buddies and his experiences growing up in Jewish Baltimore.

On May 8, Reiser will headline Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s fourth annual Night of the Stars benefit, which honors Dot and Henry Rosenberg and benefits the E.B. Hirsh Early Childhood Center as well as BHC’s religious school and youth programs.

“That was my first job, like ever,” Reiser said of “Diner” during a recent interview. “It was the first time I ever saw a camera. The whole crew of us were pretty green, so there was this shared excitement. I didn’t know it would be such a big deal. For a first break, it was magical, really.”

Reiser said that although “Diner,” which also launched the careers of Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenberg and Ellen Barkin, wasn’t considered a commercial success at the time, it was seen and appreciated by many people in the film industry.

“When I came to L.A. a year or two later, everyone knew me,” he said.

Reiser, 57, was born in New York City to Sam and Helen Reiser. His father was a wholesale health food distributor. He grew up in the Stuyvesant Town neighborhood of lower Manhattan and attended the East Side Hebrew Institute, Stuyvesant High School and SUNY Binghamton, where he was active in the theater department. Reiser began his career as a comedian during the summers of his college years, performing in nightclubs in New York City. After graduating in 1977, Reiser continued working as a stand-up comedian and was eventually discovered by Levinson.

“I had been taking acting classes for about a year, and I said, ‘Give me a scene and I’ll show you my stuff.’ But Barry said, ‘No, we’re just going to talk,’” recalled Reiser. “He had a very clear image of what he wanted.”

After “Diner,” Reiser appeared in such films as “Beverly Hills Cop” (I and II), “Aliens,” “The Marrying Man” and “Bye Bye Love.” He co-starred in the television series “My Two Dads” but is best known for co-starring, writing and producing NBC’s hit comedy “Mad About You” from 1992 to 1999. The sitcom focused on young, urban married couple Paul and Jamie Buchman and their wacky friends and families. It was well-loved for its honest depiction of married life, and Reiser said it was largely autobiographical. “Mad About You” made Reiser and Helen Hunt stars and won Reiser multiple nominations for Emmy, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Satellite awards.

In addition to his acting credits, Reiser is also the author of “Couplehood” (1995), “Babyhood” (1998) and “Familyhood” (2011). Reiser, who is married to a woman he met in the early 1980s — “Sometimes you know it’s right,” he said — has two sons, 13 and 18.

“Every day is a beauty,” said Reiser, adding that the idea to write the first book came from taking his comedy act and committing it to paper.

He likes the last book the most.

“There was a big 15-year gap between the second and third book,” he said. “I had two kids and was in my 50s. It was more introspective. By that time, I had things to talk about that were too complicated to do on stage. It was a little deeper.”

Ranked 77th on a Comedy Central list of the 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time, Reiser has returned to his roots as a stand-up comedian in the past few years.

“I started as a stand-up but didn’t do it for 20 years. I wanted to get back to it. For a year, I just went to local clubs and worked on my material,” he shared. “I said, ‘Whoever wants to see me, I’ll go.’ People are coming to see me because they know me from ‘Mad About You,’ so it feels as if I am getting together with old friends.”

When he performs at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Reiser said it will be like performing for family, or in his words, “like a huge Seder.”

For additional information and to purchase tickets to Night of the Stars, visit bhcong.org or call 443-524-0284.


Rockin’ and Rollin’

Rogers Waters played in Israel in 2006 before joining the BDS movement. Other artists, like Madonna, have chosen to ignore the pressure from the movement and perform in Israel anyway.

Rogers Waters played in Israel in 2006 before joining the BDS movement. Other artists, like Madonna, have chosen to ignore the pressure from the movement and perform in Israel anyway.

While Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters has in recent years acted as a de facto frontman for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, urging fellow artists against performing in Israel, Shuki Weiss Promotion and Production Ltd., for nearly 35 years, has brought the biggest names in entertainment to the Jewish state for historic live shows.

Musical guests attracted to Israel by the company have included Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, Madonna, David Bowie and Eric Clapton. The trend continues this summer with Neil Young, Soundgarden and the Pixies, all signed by Weiss to perform in Tel Aviv. The Rolling Stones have also been booked by Weiss.

“I’m not getting the message from the artists that they are feeling the pressure [from the BDS movement]. While that might have been true in the past, that’s not the case today,” said Oren Arnon, the head promoter for Weiss’ company.

Weiss has also signed the international circus troupe Cirque du Soleil, which is bringing its “Quidam” performance to Tel Aviv this summer.

Promoting and producing live performances in Israel, in the dangerous and unstable neighborhood that is the Middle East, comes with significant financial risk, said Arnon. When the security situation becomes heated and artists decide to cancel their shows, “we lose millions [of dollars],” he said.

That was the case during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when the popular British electronic music band Depeche Mode canceled its Israel show over concerns for safety. (The band did make up for it by performing in Israel several years later.)

Over the past several years, some artists have canceled their planned Israel shows not due to security fears, but as a result of the pressure levied by members of the BDS movement. Yet Arnon said of what he calls the “many” artists who haven’t backed out, “We’ve had many positive experiences with conscientious and intelligent artists who choose to come and see for themselves rather than cave to the propaganda.”

The Rolling Stones would be the biggest name to perform in Israel this summer. BDS groups have already taken to social media, calling on the Stones to boycott the Jewish state.

Whether or not she directly felt the BDS pressure, last year popular R&B singer Alicia Keys ignored the campaigns targeting her Israel performance and gave a concert in Tel Aviv that Arnon said was simply “incredible.”

Arnon admitted that BDS “in many ways can be seen as nonviolent and legitimate,” but added that art “is supposed to address issues that bother and disturb [people].”

“What BDS is saying is ‘just shut up — don’t use your art for good or for bad,’ which is something we [at Shuki Weiss Promotion and Production] have a hard time agreeing with,” Arnon said.

Arnon said Weiss’ company was behind the 2006 Israel concert by Roger Waters, a massive show was moved from its original venue to the Neve Shalom “Oasis of Peace” village, where Arabs and Jews live together. The vision was to play at a location symbolizing hope and peace between the two peoples. It was only after the show was announced that Waters was introduced to the BDS movement, according to Arnon. But Waters chose to play in Israel anyway and after performing there decided to become one of the BDS movement’s biggest supporters based on his firsthand experience of the country.

“Whether you or I agree [with Waters’ decision to support BDS] doesn’t matter,” Arnon said. “I don’t think I am trying to put words in anyone’s mouth. I don’t think it’s legitimate to prevent people from educating themselves, and it’s also not legitimate to shove one specific set of beliefs down an audience’s throat. Everyone is entitled to obtain his or her own opinion, how they see fit.”

While Waters came away with one particular conclusion, many other artists who come to Israel see the country in a positive light, said Arnon. He cites various coexistence projects musicians are exposed to when they visit Israel, including work done by an organization called Heartbeat, which brings Jerusalem-area Jewish and Arab youths together to play music in order to “let go of the fear they might have of each other.”

“We’ve taken artists to see [Heartbeat’s work] together and given artists the opportunity to come and express their thoughts,” Arnon said. “Israel is a democracy and artists can go on stage and say what they want to say. That’s what the arts have been about the last few centuries.”

Arnon feels it would be best for both the Jewish and Arab public in Israel if artists would choose discussion over boycotts. While he said singers are entitled to boycott, he has a problem with those who say, “Don’t go there and play for your fans, and don’t engage with them.”

“Bottom line, come here and tour and see the facts,” Arnon said, conveying his message to potential artists considering performances in Israel. “Our success is having an artist tour, understand the difficulties, and understand that bad things happen here similar to anywhere else in the world. We encourage them to come instead of not showing up.”

Dream Come True

Nof Atamna-Ismaeel’s victory on “Master Chef” was the most-watched reality show ever in Israel. (Courtesy of Channel 2)

Nof Atamna-Ismaeel’s victory on “Master Chef” was the most-watched reality show ever in Israel.
(Courtesy of Channel 2)

Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, an Arab woman with a Ph.D. in marine microbiology, has won Israel’s highest honor for an amateur chef — “Master Chef.” She still finds it hard to believe it’s really true.

“The moment they announced it, I just started crying, and I couldn’t contain my joy,” she said. “Now it’s beginning to sink in, and it means I’ll be able to fulfill my dream.”

That dream, says Atamna-Ismaeel, is to open an Arab-Jewish cooking school in her area of northern Israel. Some 20 percent of Israel’s population are Arabs who have full citizenship and rights. Twelve Arab citizens of Israel are members of the 120-seat parliament.

“Near my village there are a lot of Arab towns and Jewish towns —it’s a mixed area, but it’s very sad,” she said. “Although we live very close to each other, there are very limited connections and few friendships between Jews and Arabs.”

Atamna-Ismaeel, the first Arab Israeli woman to win, beat out thousands of Israelis who came to audition for one of 14 spots on TV’s “Master Chef,” which just finished its fourth season. The finale, broadcast earlier this month, was the most-watched reality show in Israel’s history.

She formed a close friendship with an unlikely candidate — an ultra-Orthodox British rabbi named Josh Steele, who was eliminated halfway through the competition.

“Nof is a beautiful, lovely person,” Steele said. “She doesn’t care about the fame. She wanted to the opportunity to fulfill a dream and make a difference in the world.”

Steele’s life, too, has been changed by “Master Chef.” He spoke openly on the show about how his young cousin entered him for an audition, hoping he would stay in Israel and become a new immigrant. He spoke about his search for an Orthodox Jewish bride and has recently become engaged.

He said he has not tasted Atamna-Ismaeel’s food yet because of the restrictions of keeping kosher, but she has promised to come to his house to cook for him.

“She is the first Israeli Palestinian I’ve had a close relationship with,” Steele said. “She calls me every Friday to wish me a good Sabbath. We can talk for hours.”

Atamna-Ismaeel says that her friendship with Steele shows the power of food to bring people together.

“We come from different worlds. He is a rabbi and I’m a scientist,” she said. “Most of the time I’m in the lab or at home in an Arab town. Without “Master Chef” we wouldn’t have met. We have the same passion for modern food, and we had so much to talk about.”

Atamna-Ismaeel’s path to fame began in her grandmother’s kitchen when she was just 4.

“I used to sit on the counter and watch my grandmother cooking and beg her to let me help her,” she said. “She knows how to bring us all together. Even now, she calls me and tells me that she made something, and we all drop what we’re doing to go see her and eat her food.”

In one episode, the participants’ families were invited to visit and watch them cook. Atamna-Ismaeel cried as her grandmother, dressed in traditional Arab dress, walked onto the studio set.

“I am so happy that I was able to make her proud of me,” she said. “She gave me my understanding of all the basics in Arab cuisine.”

Atamna-Ismaeel specializes in modern Arab cuisine — taking traditional Arab cuisine and giving it a modern twist. She called her winning dish “Sultan’s Stream” — a visually arresting striped red mullet with almond cream.

She uses a lot of traditional Arab foods such as fava beans (ful in Arabic), tahini and eggplant to create dishes that are visually enticing as well as delicious. Besides winning “Master Chef,” she won the audience choice award for “favorite chef.” While being interviewed, she was cooking dinner for three lucky families who won a drawing.

“I’m making them lamb osso bucco with sweet potatoes and root vegetables,” she said. “I’m making ful with tahini sauce and meatballs, and a risotto from ‘freekeh,’ a type of wheat. Oh, and the date cookies I made on the show.”

The hardest challenge for her on “Master Chef” was when the competitors were asked to make a dish using only canned food.

“Arab cuisine is very seasonal, and we never use cans,” she said. “I know a lot of people eat canned food, but anyone who is a serious cook doesn’t like to use cans. On the show I decided to use only vegetables and not touch the canned meat. I wouldn’t want to eat it, and neither would the judges.”

The judges, four of Israel’s most famous chefs, offered comments and criticism on each dish.

“I’ve learned so much from them,” she said. “I feel like I became a better chef from episode to episode.”

Ataman-Ismaeel also enjoys cooking for her family. Her husband, a nurse, came to the final episode with her 6-year-old son. Her twins, a boy and a girl aged 2, stayed home.

“When I won, my son hugged me harder than he ever has in his life,” she said. “I was so happy that I could make him so proud.”

She hopes her cooking school will start to break down barriers that still exist between Arabs and Jews.

“I’m just Nof and I can’t solve the Arab-Israeli conflict,” she said. “But all change starts with small acts. If I can bring a few hundred Arabs and Jews to my school and break down some stereotypes, I will be glad. Through food, you can bring people together in a good atmosphere, and they can begin to understand each other.”