From Farm to Seder Table

Julie Sperling works the matzah dough at the Naga Bakehouse in Vermont. (Courtesy Naga Bakehouse)

Julie Sperling works the matzah dough at the Naga Bakehouse in Vermont.
(Courtesy Naga Bakehouse)

NEW YORK — In their small farmhouse bakery in Vermont, Doug Freilich and Julie Sperling work around the clock producing matzah in the period preceding Passover — a matzah that feels ancient and modern at once.

Using a mix of grain they grow on their own farm and wheat sourced from other local farmers, the couple create hundreds of pieces of the wholesome unleavened bread they call Vermatzah.

“The idea came because of our initial interest in growing grains, looking at them from the harvest to the baking in a very simple sense, and highlighting grains that have good flavor,” said Freilich. “We celebrate our own Passover each year, we go through the matzah-making ritual for both the spring awakening and remembering the storytelling of this holiday.”

Freilich and Sperling, co-owners of the Naga Bakehouse in Middletown Springs, Vt., are among American Jewish bakers looking at new ways to create matzah in ways that dovetail with the concerns of an age of foodies and locally sourced groceries.

They are joined in the process by their teenage children, Ticho and Ellis.

“Between the four of us, we are working each and every piece by hand: They are handmade with fingerprints, and heart, and soul,” said Freilich. “Our matzahs are tinted and kissed by the fire of the wood oven.”

At the end of the labor-intensive process, each matzah is wrapped in parchment paper and hand tied before being sent off — with a bonus seed packet of wheatberries from the family’s farm — to prospective customers throughout the country.

Vermatzah is primarily available in Vermont, New York and Massachusetts, but Freilich said a huge increase in Web orders means the product is now making it across the United States.

Freilich and Sperling have been making Vermatzah for six years. Now others are beginning to embrace matzah’s role in the farm-to-table trend.

The Yiddish Farm, an eclectic collective in Goshen, N.Y., that combines Yiddish language instruction with agriculture, is producing its own matzah this year baked with grain grown in its fields.

The matzah will be whole wheat and shmurah — a ritual designation that refers to a process of careful supervision that begins when the matzah’s grain is harvested and doesn’t stop until the matzah is baked. The process involves planting, combine-harvesting, reaping, milling and sifting at the Yiddish Farm, according to the Forward.

The end result is a locavore’s matzah dream that will travel from Goshen, in upstate New York, to Manhattan and New Jersey prior to Passover.

For Anne Kostroski, the owner of Crumb Bakery in Chicago, making her own matzah has less to do with food ideology than more practical matters.

“I don’t like eating store-bought matzah because I think it tastes awful,” she said, laughing.

Kostroski, 41, has been making her own signature matzah for nearly 10 years, since her conversion to Judaism in the mid-1990s.

“The matzah I make is made with honey, locally sourced eggs, black pepper and olive oil,” said Kostroski. “It’s flat and crunchy, but not as dry as the regular store-bought plain matzah. There’s a hint of heat and sweetness that makes matzah more interesting.”

For Kostroski, matzah making has been a part of her Jewish journey, even when she hasn’t been able to attend synagogue regularly under the strain of a baker’s life. Matzah creates a feeling of connection with history and tradition, she explained.

And her homemade matzah, which she sells at farmers’ markets, her Chicago eatery, the Sauce and Bread Kitchen, and by preorder — is made lovingly and painstakingly by hand.

“I make several hundred matzahs a year, mixed, rolled and baked,” she said. “One batch is maybe two dozen, and it’s really labor intensive.”

Kostroski said demand is increasing slowly but surely year by year.

“I came across this recipe in 1995 and I started making it, and I’ve been making it ever since,” she said. “People are not expecting different types of matzah — they expect something flavorless, and it doesn’t have to be.”

The Hockey Maven

Stan Fischler is flanked by producer Glenn Petraitis (left) and co-host Peter Ruttgaizer at the Nassau Coliseum, set of their pregame and postgame shows. (provided)

Stan Fischler is flanked by producer Glenn Petraitis (left) and co-host Peter Ruttgaizer at the Nassau Coliseum, set of their pregame and postgame shows.

As the Boston Bruins buzz the Islanders net throughout the opening period of a game at the Nassau Coliseum, Stan Fischler is standing 10 feet behind the Plexiglas to the left of New York goaltender Kevin Poulin.

Fischler, a hockey broadcaster for four decades, can feel the rattling boards of forechecking Bruins.

There’s no place he’d rather be.

Providing New York-area hockey fans with a bird’s-eye view and expert analysis is what Fischler, 81, has done on broadcasts of Islanders, Rangers and Devils games. He’s had a love affair with the sport since he was introduced to it quite by accident as a 7-year-old growing up in Brooklyn.

“The Hockey Maven,” as Fischler has long been known, has a love affair, too, with Israel. He and his wife, Shirley, visit there each summer. And their younger son, Simon, 35, lives on Kibbutz El Rom in the Golan Heights and blogs on diplomacy while also writing for Fischler’s hockey newsletter.

Simon, not surprisingly, taught the sport to his children at the ice rink in nearby Metulla.

He recalls his father asking him when he was 8 to find Israel on an atlas. The boy couldn’t, so dad pointed it out.

“That was one of my earliest memories: This is our land,” said Simon, who lives on the kibbutz with his wife and three children. “I thank him every day for it because I am extremely proud of my Jewish national heritage. It’s why I live in Israel.”

Fischler says his mother, Molly, losing nearly all her relatives in the Holocaust in the former Czechoslovakia helps explain why his support of Jewish causes “revolves around the security of Israel.”

It was his mother who introduced 5-year-old Stan, her only child, to spectator sports.

But two years later it was his father, Benjamin, who would bring Fischler to his first hockey game. They were intending to see “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” but emerging from the subway into torrential rain at 50th Street and Eighth Avenue, where Madison Square Garden then stood, the plans changed.

“Forget it,” said Benjamin, a big-time sports fan, in spurning the film, Fischler recalled. “We’ll go to the game.”

The Rangers’ minor league team, the Rovers, was taking on the Washington Eagles, and the boy was hooked. After each Rovers game, Fischler would write a recap in his souvenir program. A hockey writer was born.

Fischler would handle public relations for the Rangers, then work 20 years as a newspaper reporter before moving into broadcasting, first for the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers and then the New York-area teams in the National Hockey League.

The opinionated broadcaster has won multiple Emmy Awards and, in 2007, the NHL’s Lester Patrick Trophy for advancing American hockey.

His love and knowledge of the game are apparent in the pregame and postgame shows he co-hosts for the three NHL teams on the MSG Network.

Fischler just had his 100th book on the sport published. “We Are the Rangers” is an oral history of the team that tugged at Fischler’s heart as a boy growing up in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Some of the books were co-authored with Shirley, with whom he lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His subjects have included Hall of Fame players such as Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Stan Mikita and Rod Gilbert. Others have been on coaches, teams, great moments and rivalries.

The epilogue of the new book tells of Simon needing a heart transplant in 1993. Fischler movingly writes of the Rangers’ then-coach and goalie, Mike Keenan and Mike Richter, visiting his son — a diehard fan of the Islanders, the Rangers’ bitter rivals.

Unwritten was what Gilbert relayed: He also had come to the hospital, where he and Simon, sitting alone, discussed hockey and prayer.

That evening, an emotional Fischler phoned Gilbert, a friend since the player’s debut in 1960, with the news that a donor heart had become available.

“Call it coincidence, call it energy or whatever you want,” Gilbert said. “I was very grateful that he did successfully get a transplant.”

Told of Gilbert’s comments, Fischler says the visit came when Simon’s condition was dire.

“I did attach something positive to Rod Gilbert’s visit. Rod was basically doing some preaching, some talking about getting through his [own] medical experiences,” Fischler said. “When you’re in a situation like that, you welcome any source of hope.”

Another source was praying at the family synagogue on West 110th Street.

The crisis wasn’t discussed on-air.

Viewers tune in to hear Fischler opine and inform on hockey — the sport he adored alone among his childhood pals in Williamsburg.

Fans strolling the Nassau Coliseum concourse during the Islanders-Bruins game stopped by the white picket fence delineating the set where Petraitis, Fischler and the broadcast’s other co-host, Peter Ruttgaizer, ply their trade.

They seek out Fischler to banter, ask questions and pose for photographs.

“You turn on MSG and there’s Stan,” said Kyle Hall, 25, after taking a picture with Fischler. “I only know things are true if Stan says so. He’s knowledgeable.”

Preparing for the pregame show, Fischler says, “It never stops being eciting because you never know what’s going to happen from game to game.”

Slam Dunk

The UMd. Hillel hosts the  Kiddush Cup on March 28.  (University of Maryland Hillel)

The UMd. Hillel hosts the Kiddush Cup on March 28.
(University of Maryland Hillel)

For the past three years, University of Maryland Hillel has hosted a basketball tournament for Hillel teams from around the country. Students will gather in College Park once again on March 28 for the National Hillel Basketball Tournament, a weekend of food, speakers and basketball. The winning team will take home the Kiddush Cup.

The tournament was founded by students and continues to be mostly student run. Members of the tournament board are “people who just love basketball, love Jews and love camaraderie,” said senior Mike Shrager, who is chairing the tournament with Joseph Tuchman.

The tournament is at capacity, organizers said. There will be 41 teams — 32 men’s and nine women’s — from more than 30 schools and made up of almost 300 students. Maryland has five teams — three men’s and two women’s — but there are also teams coming from as far away as the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Shrager described the tournament as a “whole weekend experience” for participants, most of whom will stay in university housing. “We use the tournament as a way to bring Jewish students together,” he said.

The games begin on March 29 with each team playing three preliminary games that night and the following morning, and the single-elimination bracket tournaments begin late on the morning of March 30. There will be separate men’s and women’s brackets.

Participants will arrive next Friday, participating in what Shrager called a “huge kickoff Shabbat dinner” to which everyone is welcome. Following dinner, Jewish comedian Joel Chasnoff will perform. Afterward, the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity will host an oneg Shabbat.

Past winners of the tournament reflect the diversity of its participants. The inaugural tournament was won by Washington University in St. Louis, followed by Yeshiva University in 2012 and the John Jay School of Criminal Justice, a New York City senior college, last year.

Maryland Hillel’s executive director, Ari Israel, said that while Hillel staff is involved, it is there to support the students and help with what is needed.

“We do everything we can to help them to grow and nurture,” he said.

The tournament “is a real tribute to what students can do,” he added. “It’s very sophisticated; students and staff put together a full gamut of events.”

Israel, like Shrager, stressed that the tournament weekend will be “more than just 10 minutes of playing ball.” While the games will take place in campus gyms, Israel said other events will take place “all over campus,” with Shabbat dinner taking place at the Adele H. Stamp Student Union, and other events being hosted by Hillel and AEPi.

For the first time, the tournament will allow teams to include up to three NCAA athletes. While Shrager said that no Division I athletes will be participating, he said that there will be several Division III players.

Brad Alhadef, a recent Maryland graduate, is preparing to play in the tournament for his fourth straight year. The Dallas native will be involved for the first time this year as just a player. Previously, he was on the board.

“As a board member, it was a great experience,” he said, “and to be a part of it from the beginning was great. Being a player, it’s a very different experience.”

Alhadef, who is competing on Maryland’s Langer team this year, is looking forward to seeing friends from his yeshiva as well as fans who attend the games “all decked out in Maryland gear.”

He said that the tournament is a great chance to showcase the university’s successfully large Jewish community, specifically the modern Orthodox community.

Last year, students had the opportunity to hear from then-NBA commissioner David Stern following the championship game. This year, after the men’s final game (which will take place late afternoon on March 30), they will hear from Bruce Levenson, owner of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.

Students can also submit their picks for the men’s and women’s tournament victors with the prize being a registration discount for next year’s tournament, “the NHBT Ultimate Fan Swag Bag Package,” and, perhaps most importantly, “national bragging rights,” according to, where the survey form can be found.

Alhadef, whose teams have not previously been successful in the tournament, believes his team will be competitive this year.

“We’ve never gotten that far,” he said. “We’re hoping to change that.”

The National Hillel Basketball Tournament will begin at 8:30 p.m. on March 29 and continue through March 30.

Jewish Cinema Grabs Spotlight


“Hunting Elephants,” a crime comedy about three seniors and a young boy, will close the festival on April 10.

The William and Irene Weinberg Family’s Baltimore Jewish Film Festival kicks off March 20, marking the event’s 26th year. The festival will showcase works from national and international filmmakers depicting Jewish themes.

The festival, which runs through April 10, will feature works that range in length from just 10 minutes to more than two hours, in addition to opportunities for discussion with those involved in producing some of the films and educators with insight into some of the topics.

Selection of the films is a months-long process for the festival committee, which begins screenings in September. This year’s selections, said JCC film festival coordinator Danielle Feinstein, represent a balanced mix of genres; the nightly showings are expected to be sold to near capacity.

Ali Waked, a screenwriter for the award-winning film “Bethlehem,” one of the most anticipated of the festival, made a stop in Baltimore March 7 to discuss his film.

It’s exciting to watch the film spread from continent to continent, said Waked. “Bethlehem” debuted in August at the Venice Film Festival and was officially released in the United States last Friday. Since its first screening, it has been the subject of a lot of attention worldwide.

The film, though Israeli-sponsored, was really a co-production between
Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers, said Waked, who is a former Palestinian journalist. It explores the fictional relationship between an Israeli secret service agent and a Palestinian teen turned informant.

“It is different from one place to another,” Waked said of attending many of the film’s screenings in different countries around the world. “In France and the States we had a whole discussion about separation.

“In Germany people were more interested in how an Arab and a Jew came together to make a film. In some other places the focus was on the artwork and less on the political issues.”

All screenings take place at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts. Tickets ($12 in advance, $14 at the door) are on sale now and can be purchased through the JCC’s website.

Pick Your Filling

031414_foodPrepare to get your celebration mode in gear, it’s time for Purim! Head to your nearest synagogue, crank up your groggers, and get ready to drown out the name of Haman while cheering on Esther and Mordechai.

As a prerequisite to any and all Purim celebrations (and seudahs), it’s time to dig out your favorite hamantaschen recipe and get baking. This year I received an email with the query of where exactly did the idea of a hamantaschen come from? After a bit of research I came up with three slightly different but not dissimilar explanations for the seminal holiday treat. Simply put, hamantaschen are three-cornered pastries whose traditional filling is poppy seed. In Yiddish, “hamantaschen” roughly translates to Haman’s pocket. Other cultures call it Haman’s hat, because the biblical villain supposedly wore a three-cornered chapeau. Still another explanation I found calls the pastry Haman’s ear.

No matter which definition you choose, the oldest “traditional” hamantaschen recipe I found used yeast dough. The yeast dough variety is typically larger and more Danish-like than the cookie-dough variety I grew up with. No matter which dough you choose, the most talked-about filling I found was poppy seed. It’s not my favorite filling, but a poppy seed interior is ubiquitous among hamantaschen purists.

The sky’s the limit when it comes to fillings, however, from fruits and nuts to chocolate and a mixture of any and all of your favorite things. Just make sure not to overstuff and to vent the cookies as they tend to “explode” into weird-looking pastries if the steam from the filling builds up and there is nowhere for it to go.

I’m offering yeast and cookie-dough recipes and a bunch of really different filling recipes. Since you can always buy pie filling, there are no excuses not to doctor up your own. Strain out the excess goo, and add some bread crumbs and chopped golden raisins to make your own “homemade” fillings. If you’re pressed for time, these recipes are going to help you make hamantaschen that are truly deliciously unique.

Hamantaschen Cookie Dough
Another Hamantaschen Cookie Dough
Joan Nathan’s Recipe for Yeast Hamanstachen
Raspberry Filling
Dried Fruit and Nut Filling
Brownie Filling

The Best Present My Parents Gave Me

The best present my parents gave me wasn’t something sentimental, like a family heirloom, nor was it something extravagant, like a new car. In fact, if I had to guess at its purchase price, I would probably put it in the $4.99 plus tax category.

What was the gift? It was a binder — not the fancy kind with the see-through cover; just a plain white one of the no-muss-no-fuss variety. Its value, of course, lay in its contents, which included the following:

Copies of:

• My parents’ wills, powers of attorney and medical directives

• The receipt for their burial plots and the location of the cemetery and plot number

• Their bank and brokerage statements with the contact information of their broker

• Pension and retirement account information, including the names of the beneficiaries

• Insurance policies — health, disability, life and long-term care, with the contact information of the insurance agent

• The address of the bank where their safe deposit box is located and where the key is kept in their home

• The titles to their home and their cars and the location of the originals

The binder sits, unobtrusively, on my bookcase, probably gathering dust. I rarely think about it, except …

… when my father was diagnosed with lymphoma and my parents were suddenly plunged into the nightmare that is cancer. My mother was tremendously relieved that someone in the family had immediate access to this information, and my parents could devote their time and energy to my father’s medical treatments.

… or when I paid a condolence call to my friend who had recently lost her father. Although her father was not young, his death was sudden and unexpected. He alone had been in charge of the family finances and had not thought to share this information with his spouse or children. The burden of having to piece together the family finances in the midst of their mourning added greatly to the emotional stress the family was experiencing.hink Think about it. Does your family know whether you want to be buried in the cemetery with your parents or in a cemetery in Israel? Or whether you want to donate your body to science? If your loved ones don’t know the answers to these questions before the need for them arises, it is unlikely that they will stumble across this information in enough time for it to become a reality.

Think about that safe deposit key that you keep hidden in the back of the drawer with the rubber bands, paper clips and other kitchen junk. Do your loved ones even know that you have a safe deposit box? How long will it take them to find the key? And if they do eventually discover it, how will they know what bank or branch is the right one?

And think about the effect that technology has had on record keeping. Even as recently as a decade ago, bills and account statements would generally arrive in the mail and clue family members into the existence of bank accounts or retirements accounts. Now, many of us have elected to go “paperless.” Statements and financial documents come straight to our email inbox. Does anyone have the password to your computer and your email account? If they don’t, how will your loved ones find all of your accounts? Even if they have your passwords, some statements (like life insurance) come only once a year. Will someone still be monitoring your inbox a year after your passing?

Think about how hard you have worked all of your life to ensure that your spouse is taken care of after you’re gone or how hard you’ve tried to save a small inheritance to pass on to your children and grandchildren. Think about how you don’t want it to be lost because your loved ones don’t know it exists. Think about it.

Think about it some more, and then go out and buy that binder. It may be the best $5 you’ll ever spend.

Deborah Hamburger is the volunteer coordinator for pro bono services at Jewish Community Services. To learn more about how JCS can help you solve life’s puzzles, call 410-466-9200.

Double Standards

Sahdi Marei as Sanfur and Tsahi Halevi as Razi

Sahdi Marei as Sanfur and Tsahi Halevi as Razi

The screw-tightening Israeli drama “Bethlehem” pivots on the personal bond between a Shin Bet officer and the Palestinian teenager he’s cultivated as an informant.

That may sound like a bad case of misplaced trust by both parties. In the context of this harrowing film, where every character has his own agenda and loyalty is measured in days (if not hours), Razi and Sanfur’s relationship is no more or less risky than any other.

Consequently, the question that “Bethlehem” leaves us with is not a pleasant one: In a circumscribed world of impossible choices on both sides, how does anyone evade becoming a victim?

“Bethlehem” will be screened April 8 at the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival, which runs from March 20 to April 10 at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts.

The film garnered Ophir Awards for best picture, director (Yuval Adler) and screenplay (Adler and Arab journalist Ali Waked) and was Israel’s official submission for the Foreign Language Oscar. Unlike “Omar,” an excellent Palestinian film that coincidentally also revolves around an Israeli handler and his Palestinian source, “Bethlehem” did not receive a nomination.

Both movies are riveting, rewarding and undeniably unsettling. “Omar” is the slightly richer film, thanks to a fraught love story threaded through the narrative that adds a dash of tenderness to the hair-trigger proceedings. “Omar” is also a slightly more political work.

“Bethlehem” presents us with a procession of single-minded characters who are unwavering in their short-term aims, regardless of who gets hurt along the way. The presumed larger goals — protect Jews or kill Jews — gradually get pushed into the background by ego, ambition, power and suspicion.

Razi, the Israeli operative, has had Sanfur’s ear for two years and evinces great concern for his adolescent informant. We’re inclined to believe him — Israelis are good guys, right? — but Razi’s main priority is eliminating the leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Bethlehem — who happens to be Sanfur’s brother. (It’s almost too on the nose that the Israelis’ code name for Sanfur is Esau.)

A successful suicide bomb attack increases the pressure on Razi from his boss, edging him into one risky decision after another. His fixation reaches a peak in the mission to take out Sanfur’s brother in Bethlehem that comprises the film’s pulse-pounding centerpiece.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, display neither calm nor unity under fire. The Palestinian Authority is depicted as corrupt and opportunistic, playing Al-Aqsa against Hamas with misappropriated funds and judiciously dispensed rumors. Indeed, the viewer wonders if any faction is in it for the cause or for the money, power and street cred.

We come to accept that loyalty is naive and imprudent in this toxic climate. Alas, Sanfur is desperate to prove that he’s as brave and worthy of respect as his brother. At the same time, the only person who doesn’t insult and belittle him is Razi.
But what is a Palestinian’s life worth if his only friend is an Israeli?

And what are the career prospects for an intelligence officer who’s so invested in his informant that he may be unwittingly developing another terrorist leader?

“Bethlehem” wants us to see that control is a dangerous illusion in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Only after the lights go up do we realize that the sense of desperation that pervades this tough-minded film builds from every character’s refusal to acknowledge that basic fact.

“Bethlehem” will be screened April 8 at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Hebrew and Arabic. (Unrated. 99 minutes.)

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

Family Business

Rick Grossman will play Sancho Panza in an upcoming performance of “Man of La Mancha.”

Rick Grossman will play Sancho Panza in an upcoming performance of “Man of La Mancha.”

Asked how he got his start in the theater business, veteran actor and director Rick Grossman will tell you he was born in a trunk. And things haven’t changed much. These days, Grossman, who was raised among three generations of theater people, is living not in, but out of a trunk, as he tours the country playing the role of Sancho Panza in “Man of La Mancha.”

“My grandparents were pioneers of the Yiddish theater in North America,” said Grossman, who is private about his age. “My grandmother had an acting background, and when she met my grandfather, a tailor by trade, she pushed him into theater too.”

Though the Yiddish theater in America was based in New York City, Grossman’s grandparents broke ground by taking it on the road.

“Everywhere in the country where there were Jews, there was a thirst for Yiddish theater, and they would go there,” he said.

Eventually, Grossman’s grandparents settled in Chicago, where they formed the Grossman-Reinhart Repertory Company. Grossman’s father and his three siblings got their starts there, as did Broadway star and Academy Award-winning actor Paul Muni.

Grossman’s parents, Irving Grossman and Dinah Goldberg, met in New York City, where they performed together in Yiddish theater companies on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The couple had two children, but only Grossman was involved in the theater.

“When I was 6 years old and my parents were in a show and needed a child for a role, there I was,” he said. “I’ve been in theater since then, with a few breaks when I’ve done other things.”

Although he recalled a time during his childhood when he resented the expectation that he would become an actor, Grossman said he always found his way back to the theater. He received acting training from Stella Adler, who was also from a Yiddish theater family, and he attended the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. After graduation, Grossman headed to California, where he acted at the Pasadena Playhouse Theater Academy. He later returned to New York, where he studied at Hofstra University.

Grossman’s favorite roles include Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” and Eddie Jacobson in “Harry and Eddie,” an off-Broadway play about Harry Truman and his Jewish friend, Eddie Jacobson, but he noted that the role of Sancho in “Man of La Mancha” holds a special place in his heart for several reasons.

Rick Grossman first played the role of Pancho Panza 35 years ago. His uncle, Irving Jacobson (left), played the role on Broadway.

Rick Grossman first played the role of Pancho Panza 35 years ago. His uncle, Irving Jacobson (left), played the role on Broadway.

For one thing, his uncle (by marriage) Irving Jacobson starred in the original Broadway production in 1965. When Grossman played Sancho Panzo in a revival 35 years ago —he’s played the role five times — he was honored to have Jacobson in the audience on opening night.

Beyond his family connections, Grossman also loves the show because of its messages of hope.

“When I first saw the show in 1965, I was taken with it from the get-go,” he explained. “I knew the story of Don Quixote, a man who is always trying to look for the good in people and the world and denying all the evil. It’s a transforming message. As an actor, you are trying to transform people’s lives, to touch them. If I do that each night, I have done my job.

“Many people who have seen other productions [of “Man of La Mancha”] want to come back again because they were touched by the show and want to re-experience it,” he continued. “You don’t find a lot of shows written like that today — shows that really challenge the audience. I’m very fortunate to be doing what I love and doing it for so many years.”

“Man of La Mancha” comes to the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric on March 14 and 15. For more information and tickets, visit

Head of the Glass

Even though Y.U. lost to the College of Elizabeth recently, Rebecca Yoshor dominated the boards with 22 rebounds. (Courtesy of Yeshiva University Sports Information Office)

Even though Y.U. lost to the College of Elizabeth recently, Rebecca Yoshor dominated the boards with 22 rebounds.
(Courtesy of Yeshiva University Sports Information Office)

NEW YORK — Watching Rebecca Yoshor in action for the Yeshiva University women’s basketball team, the skills are evident: the shot making, quickness, leadership and court smarts.

They are skills honed in what her father describes as “fierce games” with her brothers and the neighborhood kids in the driveway of her Houston home and playing for the city’s Beren Academy, where Yoshor joined the modern Orthodox school’s varsity squad as an eighth-grader among high schoolers.

At Y.U., the senior forward is leading not just the team but the nation — all divisions, men and women — in rebounding with a 16.0 average per game, one more than anyone else in Division III.

The lean 6-footer also has more blocked shots, 34, than her Maccabees teammates combined and is second on the squad in scoring with an average of 15.7 points, despite occasional foul problems that send her to the bench.

Yoshor’s rebounding prowess, her coach and teammates say, comes from superb positioning and strength. Her dad, Daniel, says it’s her hunger for the ball but adds she could be even more dominant by getting nastier and tougher on the court.

“While I do have to work hard for every rebound I get, rebounding is absolutely a team thing,” she said, explaining that teammates boxing out help pave her way to the boards.

Led by Yoshor, Y.U. has improved markedly from a season ago, said coach Nesta Felix. While the Manhattan school’s record stands at 5-11 overall and 1-4 in the Hudson Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Conference heading into the season’s final two games, the second-year coach says the Maccabees are far more competitive than last season.

That, she said, indicates improvement and offers hope.

Yoshor said it’s all about the team.

“It’s really cool,” she said of the rebounding lead, “and now that it’s been called to my attention, it’s something I’ll be proud of for the rest of my life. But I do everything I can to help the team — and if good stats come my way, that’s fine.”

Yoshor isn’t just succeeding on the court.

She was named recently to the Academic All-America team for New York-area Division III schools by the College Sports Information Directors of America. That means Yoshor, who maintains nearly a 4.0 grade- point average as an English major and psychology minor, could be selected to one of the national Academic All-America squads; she was a second-team selection in 2012-13.

Her studies aren’t just in the classroom.

As she grew taller and better at basketball, Yoshor says, she began paying close attention to other players, absorbing details on how they excelled on both ends of the court. It’s a habit that continues today.

Someone playing her tough when she posts up? Yoshor will draw the opponent outside and drive past her.

“They might be showing you something you haven’t seen before,” she said. “It’s the player you play against who forces you to evolve. As long as you play, there’s development. You have to be open to changing — in everything, but it’s definitely true in basketball.”

Her coach at Beren, Chad Cole, said, “She held her own” on varsity as an eighth-grader.

Daniel Yoshor said she did more than hold her own in the driveway, when her two brothers and the neighborhood kids played ball for hours and “she’d always beat them, until they outgrew her.”

Yoshor said she took to basketball in sixth grade.

“I was definitely one of the taller people in the back of the class picture,” she said.

For the players at Yeshiva University, the schedule is rigorous. Like all the students attending its Stern College for Women, they take a dual curriculum of Judaic and secular courses. Practices are squeezed in late at night, and they’re generally shoehorned into an 11th-floor gymnasium nearby with a half court and low ceiling. “Home games” this season have been played at three other colleges.

(Gender restrictions at the Orthodox school prevent practices being held at Y.U.’s uptown campus, according to the university’s sports information director, Michael Damon.)

Several of the players say they play for the love of the game and because it offers an outlet for academics-related stress.

Yoshor adds an internship at a Manhattan literary agency — she’d like to work in publishing upon graduation this spring.

“I just budget my time as best as I can,” she said of her busy schedule. “It’s hard.”

Felix said replacing the play and leadership of co-captains Yoshor and Naomi Gofine, who already has graduated, will be a substantial challenge next year. Junior guard Stephanie Greenberg and sophomore forward Julia Owen are expected to help fill the void.

But as Yoshor exits college ball, the family has some subs in the wings who learned the game on the driveway asphalt. Her brother Zach, at 6 feet 6 inches, was heavily recruited and will play for Harvard University following his current year of study in Israel. And 6-foot-4 Ben is a Beren sophomore.

Little sister Jordana stands just 4 feet 1 inch, so her hoops future remains unclear. She is, however, only 7.

Romanian Expression

Bucharest's Jewish State Theater served as a cultural refuge for Romanian Jews during the Holocaust. (Wikimedia Commons)

Bucharest’s Jewish State Theater served as a cultural refuge for Romanian Jews during the Holocaust.
(Wikimedia Commons)

BUCHAREST, Romania — When secret police opened fire on protesters near her home, Maia Morgenstern headed for the Jewish State Theater.

It was 1989, and Morgenstern, then 27, and a few of her friends took refuge in the theater, as protesters outside clashed with forces loyal to Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Hundreds died in two weeks of chaos that culminated with Ceausescu’s execution and the end of decades of communist tyranny.

For Morgenstern and her friends, the theater was a natural destination amid the chaos. Between the bunker-like walls of its 19th-century building, Romanian Jews have historically found a rare space in which they could come together as a community even during their country’s bloodiest periods.

“It was my second home,” said Morgenstern, who became the institution’s manager in 2012. “We went there because it offered us a sense of safety.”

Throughout Romania’s tumultuous 20th-century history, the Jewish State Theater remained open and Jewish, providing the capital’s Jewish community an island of sanity and a sense of continuity through difficult times.

More recently, the theater has become a cultural bridge, attracting large non-Jewish crowds to its Yiddish-language performances, an unlikely development made possible by simultaneous translation technologies and Morgenstern’s star status. As an actress, Morgenstern has appeared in dozens of Romanian films and television shows and, in 2004, came to the attention of English-speaking audiences when she portrayed Mary in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

In late January, snow collapsed part of the theater’s roof, which contributed to the destruction of the building’s old wood floor. (The Jewish State Theater of Bucharest

In late January, snow collapsed part of the theater’s roof, which contributed to the destruction of the building’s old wood floor.
(The Jewish State Theater of Bucharest

But the institution’s future was plunged into uncertainty last month after a snowstorm destroyed parts of its dilapidated roof and interrupted performances for the first time in decades. The theater is now mounting a campaign to repair the structure and ensure the institution’s survival. Earlier this month, a cast of 20 performed the comedy “Mazel Tov and Justice for All” on the street in front of the theater to raise awareness about its plight.

“This show is meant to be a warning to public opinion but also for the authorities,” said a statement announcing the show. “Do not let a theater with a unique tradition and identity disappear from Europe’s cultural landscape because of carelessness.”

The Bucharest city council has promised to repair the theater. Legally, it is required to do so, as the building is registered as a national monument. But Morgenstern is skeptical. The council had made repeated promises to upgrade the theater before the accident, but nothing happened, she charged.

Complicating matters is that the building was neglected for so long that merely repairing the roof won’t suffice. Morgenstern points to deep cracks that crisscross the ceiling, pillars and beams. The cost of fixing it all is estimated at several million dollars.

“The building is so rundown that a renovation won’t do,” said Morgenstern. “It needs restoration, not renovation.”

On Jan. 25, about 80 square yards of the theater’s roof caved in under snow, producing a cascade of moisture that destroyed the building’s old wood floor. The theater suspended shows, which had been running every other day.

Before the roof collapse, the theater had a mostly non-Jewish cast who performed 70 percent of their shows in Yiddish before a predominantly non-Jewish crowd. Attendance jumped over the past year from 50 audience members a week to roughly 500. Staff say this was made possible by Morgenstern’s outreach to non-Jews and her celebrity status.

Romanian leaders had long visited the theater on Jewish holidays as a gesture of closeness to the Jewish community. But Morgenstern wanted ordinary Romanians to come. She enlisted support from friends in the entertainment industry and launched a public relations campaign that helped raise the theater’s profile among non-Jewish patrons.

Morgenstern also drew non-Jewish acting students to the theater, helping them hone their craft at a private acting academy. Some students began performing at the theater and are now part of the rescue campaign, giving interviews to local and international media.

“I think it would be a tragedy for all Romanians if this place is lost,” said Irina Varius, an 18-year-old, non-Jewish acting student who rehearses at the theater every day.

During the Holocaust, the theater’s importance grew for Bucharest’s Jews because it was the only Jewish cultural institution left standing. It was also the only venue open to dozens of Jewish actors, among them some of the greatest names in Romanian theater. Artists such as playwright Moni Ghelerter and director Alexanderu Finti had been barred from working elsewhere because of racist laws passed under Romanian leader Ion Antonescu. About a half- million Romanian Jews perished in the Holocaust, but Bucharest’s 100,000 Jews were never deported or harmed.

“Throughout the Holocaust era, Jewish theater professionals continued to work at the Jewish theater, turning the theater into a pillar of civil society for Jews,” according to Liviu Rotman, a Jewish historian at the National University for Political Science.

The theater was originally established in the city of Iasi and is among Europe’s earliest Yiddish-language institutions, according to Rotman. The theater’s current building in Bucharest served as a Jewish community center until 1941, when it became the home of the theater, later renamed the Jewish State Theater.

For the moment, rehearsals for planned shows continue in rooms unaffected by the roof collapse. The result is a soundtrack that combines rejuvenation with decay, as the sounds of wind and water gushing in through the roof mix with the young voices of actors trying to wrap their tongues around Yiddish songs they barely understand and may never get to perform. Theater leaders hope the shows might still be staged at temporary venues.

“Like the Jewish people, the theater must remain practicing — even in exile,” said Andrei Munteanu, the theater’s Moldova-born director.

Under Ceausescu, the building was condemned as part of his plan to modernize Bucharest. Shortly before his ouster, he sent bulldozers to destroy other monumental buildings around the theater, including a synagogue and an Orthodox church.

Rotman believes Ceuasescu planned to demolish the theater but didn’t get to it in time. But to Morgenstern, the theater’s survival 25 years ago means it can cheat death once more.

“During the revolution, we came here amid heaps of earth and craters all around,” she recalled. “The theater towered above the ruins like a sole survivor of a bombardment. It’s got one more narrow escape in it yet.”