Baltimore’s Lithuanian Jewry Stays Connected

Within Baltimore’s flourishing Jewish community, there are organizations that are working to keep alive connections to  ancestors. The B’nai Abraham and Yehuda Laib Family Society (BAYL) is one such organization that is committed to maintaining relationships among descendants of the society’s progenitors. According to Phil Shapiro, a member of the society, nearly three-quarters of Baltimore’s Jewish population have roots from Lithuania.

BAYL hosted its 115th  anniversary picnic on Sept. 4 in Baltimore. The society normally hosts reunions every five years. It was attended by approximately 170 individuals from all over the nation and was recognized with letters from the president of Lithuania as well as both the Israeli and American ambassadors in the country.

Originally founded in Baltimore in 1901, BAYL is believed to be oldest Jewish family society in the world. The idea was that the first relatives who came to the United States from Europe would save their money to help other members of their families immigrate. While family societies were common in the 1930s, very few are left today.

The two families that formed BAYL are linked by Rella Krok, whose first husband was Yehuda Laib Romm, and she later remarried Abraham Abramson. The members of the families used to get together every Saturday night to pool pennies, bringing over another family member when they had accumulated $20. All of the members in attendance at the Baltimore reunion are descendants of the original family society.

Another organization dedicated to Lithuanian Jewry,  Remembering Litvaks, Inc., “undertakes projects dedicated to remembering the Jewish communities that existed in Lithuania, including educational programs dedicated to researching and teaching the history of Jewish life in Lithuania and improving the physical condition of Jewish gravesites and other locations of historical significance to Lithuanian Jewry,” according to its website. Shapiro is involved with that organization as well.

The organization recently introduced the Ruvin Bun Award, which “will be given for research and education  regarding the original vision of the Lithuanian state as a tolerant, multicultural society with a Western-style constitution that established a democratic government.” More information on the award can be found at bit.ly/2cJmUYh.

DNozick@midatlanticmedia.com

Chavis, Ketzis Join BHC

Yenneca Ketzis

Yenneca Ketzis

Derek Chavis

Derek Chavis

Bonnie Heneson Communications (BHC), a full-service marketing communications agency with offices in Owings Mills and Columbia, has hired Yenneca Ketzis as a senior account  executive and Derek Chavis as a social media account executive.

Yenneca Ketzis brings more than 20 years of experience in marketing, advertising, event planning and graphic design. Prior to joining BHC, she directed community affairs for Waterside Plaza, a residential community in New York City. As community affairs director, Ketzis created newsletters, ad campaigns and social media  content and produced a range of special events.

Derek Chavis specializes in promoting clients through social media and website content as well as writing for client publications. Prior to joining BHC, Chavis was a social media specialist for CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, where he helped  increase social media engagement across platforms.

Quarry Lake’s 6th Annual Fall Festival Looms

Sunday, Sept. 18 will see the sixth annual Quarry Lake Fall Festival. With more than 80 local vendors, the festival will feature activities and fun for  all ages. All proceeds from the event will be go to the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce.

Sponsored by Morgan Stanley, the event will feature a concert series over the course of the day. Shadowcall is set to perform at noon, followed by the Cheyanne Canyon Band at 1:45 p.m. and Gary & the Groove at 3:30 p.m. On the other side of the festival, there will be local musicians performing throughout the day.

Additionally, there will be an array of booths from community organizations and businesses and interactive  performances for kids. Throughout the day, children will have an opportunity to participate in face painting, jump on a moon bounce and engage in a magic show with Tim Hall from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Booths will offer balloon animals and caricatures as well. Also, Torah Tails, an educational petting zoo, will be in attendance. Jay Harris, the event coordinator for the festival, said, “There will most likely be rabbits and ducks, but we never know what they’re going to have there; they always surprise us and bring something different.”

Restaurants on-site will be selling their food, in addition to independent local vendors who will be showcasing homemade wares and foods.  According to Harris, “there will be great American food, great Indian food. … It’s just a very nice one-day event where people can come out, enjoy the nice day and see what a variety of local vendors have to offer.”

DNozick@midatlanticmedia.com

What’s a Republican Jew to Do?

Former White House speech writer Noam Neusner wrote an essay in the Forward, “How Republican Jews Utterly Failed To Prevent Rise of ‘Toxic’ Donald Trump.” (Photo compiliation using istockphoto.com)

Former White House speech writer Noam Neusner wrote an essay in the Forward, “How Republican Jews Utterly Failed To Prevent Rise of ‘Toxic’ Donald Trump.” (Photo compiliation using istockphoto.com)

Jews who vote Republican and make  national security both at home and in Israel their main issue every four years continue to wrestle with the question of the day: “Should I support Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in his bid for the White House?”

Washington-area Republicans have struggled with the GOP candidate’s hostile rhetoric and violent threats toward Muslims, Latinos, women, the disabled, Jews and those who oppose him politically. That, plus his lack of experience, has made it impossible for many Republican Jews to support him.

Prominent Jewish Republicans, including Brookings Institute Fellow Robert Kagan and Wall Street Journal op-ed columnist Bret Stephens, have announced that they would vote for the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.

Bill Kristol, founder of the Weekly Standard and the Emergency Committee for Israel, and Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, say they will support neither.

This marks an exodus of support that  hasn’t been seen since Sen. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican presidential campaign that ended in a landslide for President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Republican strategist Lee Cowen is part of that exodus.

Lee Cowen

Lee Cowen

“I think as Republican Jews we, along with a lot of the country, feel that the country needs stronger leadership. I think most Republican Jews are frustrated by the eight years of the Obama administration,” said Cowen, who has a consulting firm in Washington.

“But I just can’t support somebody who does and says so many egregious things,” he said, referring to Trump.

Cowen supported Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the Maryland primary and is considering voting for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in November.

“I’m a lifelong Republican and have supported many Republicans, but I  consider myself an American first and a Republican second,” he said.

Another potential Johnson supporter is former George W. Bush White House speechwriter Noam Neusner, who is also a member of the “Anyone but Trump and Clinton” camp. The two share something in common, he said.

“This is an unusual national election because neither candidate is reliably  pro-Israel,” he said.

In a March essay in the Forward, “How Republican Jews Utterly Failed To Prevent Rise of ‘Toxic’ Donald Trump,” Neusner sounded more dire: Trump “has built within our party the nearest thing America has ever seen to a European nativist working-class political movement.” he wrote. “Such movements, to put it mildly, have never been good for the Jews or allies of free thought and the free market.”

Noam Neusner

Noam Neusner

But in an interview this week, Neusner spoke as a political analyst. The election will be won in swing states, where as little as a five-point lead could make a difference, he said.

“The Jewish American vote in specific states and specific locations matters,” said Neusner, who lives in Maryland. “It doesn’t matter that much in Maryland, but it matters in Northern Virginia. Jewish  voters matter a great deal in Florida and Ohio.”

A poll of Florida voters by GBA Strategies gave Trump 23 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 66 percent. With upward of 500,000 Jews, Florida, has one of the largest concentrations of Jews of all the swing states.

But the poll also found that among Florida’s Orthodox Jews, the percentages were reversed, and those voters were not likely to change their minds.

“One thing is clear right now in terms of Jewish American loyalties, and that it’s the Orthodox have shifted to the right, and that’s the growth sector,” Neusner said.

To be sure, there are Jews who support Trump. The website JewsChooseTrump.org, has been active for about a month and  includes the names of 1,000 Jews throughout the country.

Carol Greenwald, a Chevy Chase resident and activist, co-founded the site.

“When I told people at my synagogue [Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac], they said, ‘This is going to be a very  exclusive club,’” she said.

Greenwald, who led a campaign to force the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington to end community funding of Theater J because of the plays it produced, said national security is her top priority, adding that Trump is not afraid to state openly that “Israel is an ally and that Islamic extremism is at war with us.”

An opponent of last year’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Greenwald said she shares with most Jews a wish for strong national security and support for Israel.

“So I find it incomprehensible that they’re not supporting Trump,” she said. “[Trump] recognizes the Iran deal is the worst  document the U.S. ever signed.”

Greenwald said she was a Democrat until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which changed her perspective.

“I was watching [writer] Susan Sontag about five days after the bombing being interviewed by some effusive reporter, and Sontag said we deserve this because we’re a colonial-imperial power. I thought, ‘No, we do not deserve this, and you don’t speak for me.’”

Security concerns are why Fairfax, Va., resident Joseph Gelman supports Trump. Gelman has lived in Israel on and off since age 10 and served in the Israel Defense Forces as a paratrooper during the first Lebanon War in the 1980s.

“The concept of deterrence in order to maintain peace is important,” he said, adding that Israel’s security should not be left to the United States, particularly the Democratic candidate.

“I think the Israelis are far better people than Hillary Clinton to decide what is best for Israeli security,” he said.

Gelman said he is not concerned about Trump’s lack of experience in politics. He thinks the country could use a break from career politicians like Clinton.

Lack of experience is “not something that I think is a negative necessarily,” he said. “People who commit their entire lives to politics are suspicious in many ways. It would be nice if some of these guys got a real job before they got a job in the Washington bubble. Maybe they would be able to relate better.”

But even for Jewish Republicans like Cowen and Neusner who oppose Trump, the businessman’s rise to the top of the ticket do not signal the end of their party. Many are looking ahead to a brighter 2020.

“It’s not the end of the world,” Cowen said. “If there was ever an election that seemed like the end of the world, this is it. But our party has bounced back from equally bad things.”

dschere@midatlanticmedia.com

Jewish Times Wins Awards

Baltimore Jewish Times employees won a number of awards in the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association’s Advertising Contest.

The contest awarded print and online work completed between June 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016.

The awards are as follows, listed by employee, entry name, placement and category:

> Michael Jankovitz; Baltimore Humane Society; Third Place; Business (non-retail)-Large Print only

> Cortney Geare, Lindsey Bridwell; Summer at Friends; Third Place; Business (non-retail)-Small Print only

> Erin Clare; Glyndon Swim Club; Second Place; Business (non-retail) Small Print only

> Lindsey Bridwell; The Associated: Jewish Women; Second Place; Custom Publication

> Lindsey Bridwell, Lonna Koblick; Hillel College Guide; Third Place; Custom Publication

> Michael Jankovitz; JT Chanukah Subscription; Third Place; House Promotion Ads

> Michael Jankovitz; Remax  Advantage; First Place; Real Estate-Small Print only

> Erin Clare, Lindsey Bridwell, Michael Jankovitz; Baltimore Guide to Jewish Life; Second Place; Special Publication-standalone

> Ebony Brown, Jennifer Perkins-Frantz; Insider Camps 2; Second Place; Special  Section- in-paper product

MShapiro@midatlanticmedia.com

Maller Honored by Daily Record

Peter Maller

Peter Maller

Peter Maller, founder and president of Maller Wealth Advisors, was named among The Daily Record’s 2016 Most Admired CEOs, which honors business and nonprofit executives throughout Maryland whose leadership and vision is admired by those around them.

An outside panel of judges selects Most Admired CEOs based on professional accomplishments, community service and letters of reference submitted by co-workers, board members and community leaders. Maller will be honored at a dinner at the BWI Hilton on Sept. 22.

Maller Wealth Advisors, headquartered in Hunt Valley, is a wealth management firm providing investment strategies, financial planning, risk management services, business succession planning and employee benefits to business owners, accomplished professionals and high net-worth individuals.

Maller serves on the Baltimore Estate Planning Council, the Washington College Planned Giving Advisory Council and the Washington College Presidents Leadership Council. In addition, he is a member of the board of trustees for Garrison Forest School and the Parents’ Council at Miami University of Ohio.

Repair the World Relaunches in Baltimore

Diana Goldsmith and Josh Sherman are asking the Jewish community to be involved in social issues. (photo by Daniel Nozick)

Diana Goldsmith and Josh Sherman are asking the Jewish community to be involved in social issues. (photo by Daniel Nozick)

Repair the World has been a national Jewish voice for service and volunteerism since its  inception in 2009. The organization, which has been in  Baltimore since 2013, recently came off a hiatus to relaunch as a partner organization of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

Heading this effort are two local Jewish millennials, Diana Goldsmith and Josh Sherman. The organization’s goal is to build a culture of service among the young populace in Baltimore — it focuses its efforts on social justice and  education and aims to mobilize young Jewish professionals to aid individuals and partnered organizations within the local community.

Across the nation, Repair the World has a few different models that it uses to integrate itself into the community. Originally, Baltimore’s branch was a fellowship program. However, according to Mordy Walfish, Repair the World’s vice president for programs, “we paused to decide how to make more of an impact on the community. We are excited to partner with The Associated  because their brand and connections and infrastructure are invaluable, and our goals align in spite of being vastly different organizations.”

Sherman said, “I think that partnering with The Associated has really given us a base that we did not have previously with the fellowship model. Most of the fellows were not from Baltimore originally and were not a part of the Jewish community.”

Goldsmith and Sherman each have a lot of experience with volunteering and tikkun olam. Goldsmith did community service through Jewish Volunteer Connection —The Associated agency Repair the World is now housed under — earlier in her life and was  actively involved with Students Helping Honduras at Towson University.

“Service should really be a part of everyday life,” she said. “We want people to be able to access it as easy as possible. We like to say that we bring the volunteering to people, I think you should give back to the community that you live in and be engaged and involved in the social issues facing the area because they effect everybody. We all want to see the community succeed and thrive. The best way to help is to get your hands dirty, to meet the community members that are affected by the social issues that we are fighting and learn it on a personal level as  opposed to from a distance.”

Sherman graduated from Kenyon College in 2014 and participated in a service trip to Israel that lasted 10 months. When he came back, he wanted to put his degree in  religious studies to work, and Repair the World proved to be the perfect stomping ground.

He shared: “This position  allowed me to see Baltimore through a different lens. I have lived here my whole life, but this is a Baltimore that I didn’t know. A personal goal of mine is to get as many people as possible to see Baltimore through that lens, to step out of their comfort zone and meet these people in the communities.”

Goldsmith explained, “The program now is just Josh and me as full-time staff members, so we do everything. We are both really involved in one  another’s work, and we are both passionate about all of the issues, so we split the work based on who has better relationships with which partners.”

Repair the World is currently involved in its High Holiday campaign for this year, which is focused around the concept of justice. The  organization is holding a Shabbat dinner at the end of the month and will discuss the intersection of racial justice and food justice. In addition to planning service events, there will be a food-justice event with Charm City Tribe at Max’s Taphouse in October. It is also creating a mobile sukkah to connect the food-justice theme to the holidays and will be driving around to bring the sukkah to local communities in an effort to share and educate.

dnozick@midatlanticmedia.com

Catholic Priest Seeks Testimony of Holocaust’s Bystanders

Ryszard R., a witness, is featured on one of the exhibit panels. (© Markel Redondo/Yahad-In Unum)

Ryszard R., a witness, is featured on one of the exhibit panels. (© Markel Redondo/Yahad-In Unum)

Sometimes the  witnesses cry a lot, although they are old now, and their tears reflect memories going back seven decades.

They cry because they can recall in vivid detail their young Jewish classmates being shot and killed right before their eyes. They can remember their schools closing for the day, allowing them to join the rest of the villagers to watch the massacre as if it were a sporting event. They remember the names of their murdered neighbors, where they lived and where their bones now lie.

Sometimes, the witnesses don’t cry, though, because their own families were among the killers and stole the belongings of the dead.

Father Patrick Desbois (© Markel Redondo/Yahad-In Unum)

Father Patrick Desbois (© Markel Redondo/Yahad-In Unum)

But what Father Patrick Desbois hears most often from the witnesses as he travels through Eastern Europe with his teams of researchers, searching for testimonies as well as the mass graves of the Jews and Roma slaughtered by guns during the Holocaust, is, “Why did you come so late?”

“It’s like they’ve been waiting all these years to tell their story,” said Lauren Bairnsfather, executive director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, which is hosting an  exhibit of the work of Desbois and Yahad-In Unum, the international organization he founded. It opened on Sept. 1 and runs through Sept. 26.

The exhibit is entitled “Holocaust by Bullets,” and  incorporates interview footage of several of the witnesses whose testimony Desbois has recorded, as well as panels with text and photos explaining his work.

The exhibit is not recommend for those younger than 14  because of its graphic nature.

Desbois’ research “is about the piece of the Holocaust that we don’t know much about,” Bairnsfather said. “And it’s chilling research.”

During the Nazi invasion of the former Soviet Union, all the Jews were systematically gathered together in each town, and then marched to the countryside where they would be shot in cold blood. That scenario is chilling enough, but perhaps equally alarming is the fact that thousands of non-Jewish townspeople would assemble at the killing sites to watch.

“It was a public spectacle,” Bairnsfather said.

For the last 12 years, Desbois, a French Roman Catholic priest, has made it his life’s mission to raise consciousness of the mass executions by Nazi killing units in Easter Europe during World War II. Through Yahad-In Unum, which he  established in 2004, Desbois and his team expose evidence of the slaughters, as well as raise awareness of current instances of genocide throughout the globe.

Jewish refugees were  executed on this site in the Krasnodar region of Russia. (© Markel Redondo/Yahad-In Unum)

Jewish refugees were executed on this site in the Krasnodar region of Russia. (© Markel Redondo/Yahad-In Unum)

Desbois’ team has interviewed more than 5,000 witnesses to the massacres of Jews and has helped give proper respect to the victims’ burial places and enable their preservation.

Desbois, who serves as head of the Commission for Relations with Judaism of the French Bishops’ Conference and as a consultant to the Vatican, also teaches at Georgetown University as an adjunct professor. He was featured in a “60 Minutes” segment on CBS last year.

Desbois first became aware of the  extent of the killings and mass graves in Eastern Europe while on a trip to Rava Ruska in Ukraine, where his grandfather had been held as a prisoner of war as a French soldier during World War II.

“He was deported to Ukraine in a German camp of Soviet prisoners,” Desbois said, speaking by phone from Paris. “He never spoke of the village called Rava Ruska. So one day I decided to go to Rava Ruska and I discovered that in that village they shot 18,000 Jews, and an unknown number of Gypsies, plus 25,000 prisoners, and nobody wanted to speak about nothing. So I came back, and back and back, until I found one of the mass graves of Rava Ruska, and it began like that.”

When Desbois discovered that those killings had been public and that some of the neighbors remembered them and were willing to talk about them, he formed a team to develop a methodology to record the testimonies.

Klara A., a witness,  is featured on one of the exhibit panels. (Aleksey Kassianov/Yahad-In Unum)

Klara A., a witness, is featured on one of the exhibit panels. (Aleksey Kassianov/Yahad-In Unum)

“In the old Soviet Union, the Germans killed the Jews and the Roma (Gypsies) in public,” he said. “And they’d bring everybody. The Germans killed them in public, and they organized it like a show. And even the schools were closed so that the children could go to see the killing of the Jews. So, in one village, I found 17 villagers who were still alive.”

Desbois’ team makes 17 trips a year to various towns in Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Azerbaijan and typically records the testimony of 40 to 50 witnesses on each trip. But the team now is “running against the clock,” Desbois said, as the witnesses are aging.

Yahad-In Unum has so far located the final resting places of 1.3 million Jews who were murdered by gunshot, but there is an estimated 1 million more that have not been found, and it is Desbois’ aim to do so.

The priest figures he has about four more years to record the eyewitness accounts and  to locate the remaining mass gravesites. Many were previously unmarked, but their location is still fresh in the minds of the witnesses.

“They never moved,” Desbois explained of the villagers. “They were born in the same house and will die in the same house, because in the former Soviet Union it was forbidden for farmers to move. So their landscape is the same. The same trees, the same roads, the same houses.”

Desbois expects that when his work is concluded, the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust will exceed 6 million because so many of those murdered in Eastern Europe were refugees from Germany and were not counted as Soviet Jews in the official death toll. Additionally, because it was legal for anyone to shoot Jews during that time, there were countless unofficial shootings, he said.

Emilija B., a witness, is featured on one of the exhibit panels. (Aleksey Kassianov/Yahad-In Unum)

Emilija B., a witness, is featured on one of the exhibit panels. (Aleksey Kassianov/Yahad-In Unum)

“It was a criminal adventure,” according to Desbois. “It was three years of free killing of Jews and Gypsies. It was legal. So anybody could kill them.”

Part of the work of Yahad-In Unum is to expose current-day genocides, and Desbois has already made six trips  to Sinjar, Iraq to record the testimony of survivors of the Islamic State mission to systematically murder the Yazidi people who lived there. He stressed the imperative of calling out Islamic extremism as genocide and drew parallels between the methodology of the Islamic State and that of the Nazis.

“There is a similarity between the way of killing of the Germans and the way of killing of the Islamists today,” Desbois said. “It’s the same practice.”

So far, he has interviewed more than 100 survivors of the Islamic State torture, and also has located several mass graves of those who could not.

“We are interviewing people who have been released less than 30 days,” he said, “so they remember exactly where they have been put in jail, where were the shootings, what were the names of the killers. It’s not the work for memory here, it’s the work for active justice,  because genocide is alive.”

He noted “the same human indifference” in the way the world is responding to the genocide of the Yazidi as it did to the genocide of the Jews.

“We must identify the  machine to denounce it and to explain the gravity of it,” Desbois said. “We have to denounce. We have to denounce radical Islam like we have to denounce Nazis. It’s not the same ideology, but it’s the same killing school. And we have to say it’s genocide, because people are trying to diminish the gravity. Like for the Jews, during the time it was like that, we said it was genocide when it was finished.”

Yahad-In Unum’s work has provided closure for many families of the lost victims of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, Desbois said.

“Families write to us now and ask, ‘Which marked grave is my grandmother? Which one is my uncle, or the rabbi?’” he said.

“I have one person full time who works to reconnect families to their country. Many people finally go back there and say Kaddish for the first time.”

For more information on Yahad-In Unum or for help  locating the gravesite of a family member murdered in the massacres of Eastern Europe, go to yahadinunum.org.

Toby Tabachnick writes for The Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

The Jewish ‘Jersey Boys’ Writers of the Baltimore-bound smash hit talk about the musical’s Jewish-Italian connection

Rick Elice (left) and Marshall Brickman (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Rick Elice (left) and Marshall Brickman (Photo by Joan Marcus)

If there’s one thing that our Italian cousins and we Jews share, it’s a needling sense of conscience. We’re each compelled by our own personal and shrill Jiminy Cricket forever prodding us to spill the beans. About ourselves, about our worldview, our foibles, what we wish we were and, inevitably, what we wish were not.

Whereas the prototypical Italian Catholic finds reprieve through private congress with an unseen priest, we Jews tend to accomplish the same via public confessionals … by way of making movies, television shows and, often, Broadway spectacles.

Which is why it should be of little surprise that two good Jewish boys from the hoighty-toighty Upper West Side of Manhattan would end up the chosen ones anointed to tell what has become one of the most salient representations of the Italian-American’s 20th-century experience, working-class Jersey-style.

“Aside from possibly speaking another language or believing that Jesus is the savior, do I feel something in common with the Italians? Of course I do,” said the first of the writers in question, Rick Elice.

Along with his sometimes writing partner Marshall Brickman, Elice penned the hit Broadway musical “Jersey Boys,” which won multiple Tony Awards when it first premiered in 2005 and which will be playing for the second time since its initial run in Baltimore at the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center from Tuesday, Sept. 27 through Sunday, Oct. 2.

“Jersey Boys,” adapted into a film (also written by Elice and Brickman) helmed by actor-cum-director Clint Eastwood in 2014, tells the unabashedly warts-and-all, rags-to-riches-to-rags story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, who found international success with such chart toppers as “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” throughout the ’60s and ’70s.

Along with being “intensely family-oriented,” Elice suggested that what Brickman and he discovered in common with their background and those of the Four Seasons — four Italian toughs, some of whom served jail time before they were 30 — is “a real sense of ‘the other’ and having to fit into a larger society.”

“Jersey Boys” tells the story of the Four Seasons and features performances of their hits from the 1960s and ’70s. (Jeremy Daniel)

“Jersey Boys” tells the story of the Four Seasons and features performances of their hits from the 1960s and ’70s. (Jeremy Daniel)

“There’s the possibility in all of our backgrounds to have felt marginalized or disenfranchised at one time or another, being immigrants. Certainly that was true of the Jews, Italians, Irish, the blacks,” said Elice.

Even in the “great bastion of Judaism” that was New York City during the time he was growing up, Elice encountered anti-Semitism, something he still sees as prevalent today and that, he worries, may in fact be on the rise.

This shared, profoundly palpable sense of being “othered” made it easier for Brickman and Elice “to understand  another demographic’s sense of isolation.”

While Elice, 59, aligns himself with Conservative Judaism — in his teens he considered becoming a cantor and in fact heard the music of the Four Seasons for the first time at a Jewish summer camp — Brickman, 73,  refers to himself as “culturally Jewish.” A self-professing “red diaper baby” raised in what he calls a socialist home environment by his mother and union-organizer father, Brickman’s Jewish identity was one of “pride for our history” more than religious conviction.

His bar mitzvah, therefore, was “more an excuse to have a little bit of a coming-of-age ceremony” held in a hall his parents rented and to which were invited a few friends and relatives who watched as the young Brickman, in lieu of reading from the Torah, gave a short speech whose content he can’t today recall but was likely “something about peace in the world.”

Brickman asserted Elice’s and his dissimilar religious ethos “doesn’t preclude our being very close friends.”
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The duo first met in the mid-’90s, courtesy a series  of auspicious circumstances revolving around mutual friends who included filmmaker Stanley Donen, writer Peter Stone and actor Roger Rees, Elice’s longtime domestic partner and husband-to-be who passed away in 2015.

It was some point around 2002 that Elice, working in  advertising and music promotion, received a call from an associate who had secured the rights to the Four Seasons’ catalogue. Elice thought it would be a wonderful idea: he loved Vivaldi.

“No,” the aspiring producer clarified. “Not that Four Seasons. The singer-songwriters behind ‘Rag Doll’ and other favorites.”

“Oh,” Elice countered. “Why?”

“To produce a musical based around the quartet’s songs. You know,” the fellow on the other end proceeded, “like the ABBA-based Broadway show ‘Mama Mia!’ that just came out to rave reviews and huge ticket sales.”

Elice balked at the concept. For one thing, he had no interest in writing a musical like “Mama Mia!” Someone else had already done that … and it was called “Mama Mia!”

There was also the problem that Elice had never written  a Broadway-bound musical. When the producer metaphorically and perhaps literally got down on his hands and knees to ask if Elice would at least  have lunch with principal songwriters Valli and Bob Gaudio, Elice asked, “Can I bring a friend?”

Brickman and Elice had been lackadaisically kicking around the notion of working together on a project, but they had been considering something along the lines of a film. Elice nevertheless rang his comrade in arms up and announced they were being tapped to  potentially write a musical about the Four Seasons.

Brickman’s immediate  response: “Why?”

The cast of “Jersey Boys” lines up to sing the hit “Walk Like a Man.” (Jeremy Daniel)

The cast of “Jersey Boys” lines up to sing the hit “Walk Like a Man.” (Jeremy Daniel)

Besides, Brickman reminded his friend, “I don’t know how to write a musical.” Elice conceded neither did he, but, “We’ll only be wasting our own time, they’re not gonna pay us anything, and if we screw it up, we screw it up. Maybe it’ll be fun.”

And, as Elice recalled, “That’s all it took.”

The fateful lunch with Valli and Gaudio would be a revelatory one. Brickman and Elice marveled at the many songs they hadn’t known were originally by the Four Seasons (and, it should be added, did lead to the selling of 175 million records). They also learned the unheralded story of the musical group that was so fascinating to the two that they couldn’t help but lean forward and ask why these astounding tales hadn’t been made public before.

It seems that while the Four Seasons had their fair share of hits and notoriety, as individuals they didn’t get many write-ups due to the mainstream press at the time’s zeroing in on contemporaries such as The Beatles and the bands of the British Invasion that, frankly, made for more popular headlines.

Of course, there was also a certain self-generated circumspection in talking with the press due to the Four Seasons’ checkered background. It was a different time back then, Valli and Gaudio reminded Brickman and Elice. That was back when brushes with the law tarnished one’s public image and career.

“So this true story turned out to not only be good, but untold,” Elice recalled. “And that’s really a mother lode for a writer. Marshall and I looked at each other and we knew. It was a eureka moment.”

Next came the unforgiving arctic glare of the blank page for two men who had never before done what they were about to do.

Though they were admittedly inexperienced at this particular form of artwork, they had one obvious ace in the hole: Brickman’s well-seasoned background in film, television and musical performance.
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“Marshall would hate me saying this, but he was one of the ‘bold face names’ of the people I most aspired to be,” said Elice, audibly swooning on the other end of the phone about the “pleasure of meeting Marshall, someone who is like an icon,” the first time on what would be “a big day for me.”

Brickman “was and is a part of the cognoscenti, especially when one is an over-privileged, overeducated, Jewish, liberal, left-leaning New Yorker who wants to think of himself as a potential person of letters,” Elice said.

“Marshall is like a lion of the culture, and I’m just a kid who got lucky.”

Brickman would humbly disagree with Elice’s sentiment that “there is absolutely no equality in our stature at all,” reciprocating the seemingly lavish praise.

“He may say something different because Rick’s very generous in his evaluation of our relationship,” Brickman said, “but I never thought of him as a protégé. I thought really early on after meeting and working with him that he was a great, undiscovered talent. So smart, so bright, so funny, so knowledgeable, and he knew so much more about the machine and process of Broadway than I.”

The almost neurotically modest, if you will, Brickman sees himself as less a lion and more someone whose career was “all about making sure I never fell on my face.”

We had a great time and ended up writing ‘Jersey Boys’ very quickly. — Rick Elice

To better understand Elice’s pseudo-fanboyistic gushing, it’s necessary to realize Brickman’s career has been as culturally impactful as impressively protean; if anything, it’s been one of a continual fall upward, with such steps along the way as: playing on the ubiquitous version of “Dueling Banjos” incorporated into the 1972 film “Deliverance,” producing “The Dick Cavett Show,” working as head writer on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” co-writing the pilot to “The Muppet Show” with Jim Henson and gigging with John and Michelle Phillips in their group the New Journeymen before Brickman “fled as though from a burning building” a year later with the Phillipses soon creating a subsequent project, the Mamas & the Papas.
And, of course, as anyone with even a cursory knowledge of contemporary film is aware, there’s ’60s folk-music-playing Brickman’s fortuitous sharing of management with an upstart comedian who at first baffled New York coffee shop audiences before honing his skills to become the Woody Allen we (think) we know of today, leading to a  series of collaborations between Brickman and Allen not limited to the Academy Awards’ Best Picture winner for 1977 and one of the most influential films of modern cinema, “Annie Hall.”

As he learned while working with Allen, Brickman found that “in every collaboration, there must be one side that is the ‘dominant force’ so that what comes out the other side has a semblance of elegance and consistency.” Here, the “lion of culture” confessed then that, yes, “there probably were times when Rick did defer to me.”

But it was always a healthy working relationship, the pair agree, with Elice stating that, “We had a great time and ended up writing “Jersey Boys” very quickly.”

The occasional disagreement would be easily salved by the underlining fact that, to Brickman, “when you have two people in a good working relationship who are sufficiently intelligent, the best idea usually wins.”

How this syllogism played out over the course of the writing could be illustrated by the distinct difference between Elice and Brickman in the employment of soi-disant sentimentality.

“Rick is by definition a much warmer and more open person than I, generally,” Brickman said. “And I tend to run screaming from sentimentality.”

Elice would bring to the table “a kind of warmth and emotion to the story of ‘Jersey Boys’ that I think really deepened it enormously and helped it to reach an audience on a different level than I would have been able to manage myself,” Brickman said.

Brickman’s incisive comedy-writing skills came in handy to “undercut” Elice’s more sympathetic moments to keep the overall framework relatively lambent and, ultimately, veiled with a humanistic humor that years of working with a master such as Allen helped manifest.

The “Jersey Boys” give it their all during a scene in the recording studio. (Jeremy Daniel)

The “Jersey Boys” give it their all during a scene in the recording studio. (Jeremy Daniel)

There was a scene early on in the writing process in which the characters of Valli and Gaudio were talking about going back out on the road again after a lacuna in their career. Valli confides in Gaudio that he’s nervous people might not like him anymore. In this earlier draft, Gaudio leans into Valli and encouragingly supports his fraternal friend, “This is your time.”

“Nuh-uh,” thought Brickman, who changed Gaudio’s line to an equally brotherly jibe more accurately depicting the true-to-life, complicated relationship of both the boys individually and fellow members of their social niche  generally: “Who says they ever liked you?”

As writers and artists themselves, Elice and Brickman know that where any story gets  interesting is in the conflict.  Including such counterpoint and, again, a “warts-and-all” version of the Four Seasons story was an essential component to the writers’ process.

There’s the possibility in all of our  backgrounds to have felt marginalized or  disenfranchised at one time or another, being immigrants. Certainly that was true of the Jews, Italians, Irish, the blacks.
— Rick Elice

When telling the life story of someone else (four someone else’s, at that), it can be a real tightrope walk. Contractually, Valli and Gaudio were given carte blanche to pull the plug if they didn’t like what they read or saw. Brickman revealed that early on in the creative process, there was a scene dealing with a woman who had had an affair with more than one of the quartet members.

“Oh, no,” Brickman said Valli pronounced, effectively knocking the scene onto the cutting room floor. “You can’t put that up on stage.”

“The impulse to include the warts in the story came from the fact that the warts is what made the story good,” Elice said. “As Marshall’s fond of putting it, you have these movie posters that say, ‘Based on a true story.’ With ‘Jersey Boys,’ we were able to say, ‘Based on a good story.’”

It’s this quality of the art beyond anything else that attracts Ron Legler, president of the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center in which the Hippodrome is housed, to the story and is why he’s proud to be bringing “Jersey Boys” to Baltimore.

“I think ‘Jersey Boys’ hit home on so many levels for me,” Legler said, fondly recalling his first seeing the show during its premiere run.

Legler is equally excited by the galvanizing of what he says is a relatively new core audience.

“So often, you have these shows specifically geared toward women,” Legler said. “This is the kind of show you could take a guy to who never has been to Broadway, and he’ll say, ‘Hey, that was a great show, and I could do that again!’”

Legler sees the match of “Jersey Boys” and Baltimore to be “perfect. There’s a lot of similarities between the people of that time and today in a drive to be better than you ever thought you could be.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that in the future, you’ll see ‘Jersey Boys’ back on Broadway,” Legler said, referring to the Broadway production’s closing in January 2017. “It’s such a compelling story, and you can’t help but feel fantastic after  seeing it.”

‘Jersey Boys’ plays at the  Hippodrome Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St.,  Baltimore, from Tuesday, Sept. 27 through Sunday,  Oct. 2. For more information and tickets, visit bit.ly/2ciRt66.

To read more about Elice’s and  Brickman’s work with Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood, visit bit.ly/2craeHI.

mklickstein@midatlanticmedia.com

Baltimoreans Protest, Rally for Trump on Monday

Owen Silverman Andrews believes Donald Trump is regarded as anti-Semitic. (Justin Silberman)

Owen Silverman Andrews believes Donald Trump is regarded as anti-Semitic. (Justin Silberman)

No matter where Donald Trump visits as the Nov. 8 presidential election draws near, appearances from the polarizing Republican nominee always seem to stir up fervent  debate for his advocates and opponents.

That trend held true when Trump visited the Baltimore Convention Center on Monday afternoon to address the annual conference of the National Guard Association of the United States. In his address to military officers from around the country, Trump slammed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for describing his supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” telling the audience that the remark “disqualifies her from public service.”

Hours earlier, dozens of Trump advocates at a nearby rally described the 70-year-old business mogul-turned-politician as the candidate who could best unite the country.

Phil Kaplan, a 37-year-old Jewish lawyer and Towson resident, said Trump would make good on his promise to tighten national security and strengthen protection at the borders.

“There is absolutely no constitutional right to come to America,” Kaplan said, “and if we have to shut down immigration in certain ways for our protection, we may have to. I say that as a lawyer, and we need to do what we need to do for our basic, physical safety.”

Trump protestors, on the other hand, say he is unfit to serve as commander-in-chief in large part because of his lack of experience and short-fused temperament.

Sean Yoes, a journalist and West Baltimore native, said Trump supporters — the majority white with a mix of other races and ethnicities — were not representative of the country as a whole. Also, he does not think Trump’s hard-charging, aggressive rhetoric will solve the socioeconomic, racial and violence issues that persist in major cities with large African-American populations such as Baltimore.

“I simply believe that we have enough issues and troubles in our city without having Trump here stirring up hatred,” Yoes said. “Honestly, after what we’ve been through as a city over the last two years, he wants to make our city a backdrop for his hatred.”

It was Trump’s first appearance in Baltimore since earning the GOP nomination in late July. Addressing the National Guard officers as national  security has become one of the focal points of the presidential race, Trump spoke about beefing up the entire military to help squash threats of terrorism.

A Trump supporter (left) and a Trump protestor argue near the Baltimore Convention Center, where Trump spoke Monday. (Justin Silberman)

A Trump supporter (left) and a Trump protestor argue near the Baltimore Convention Center, where Trump spoke Monday. (Justin Silberman)

“We will empower our generals to do the job they were hired to do, and that begins with defeating and destroying ISIS,” Trump said. “Instead of endless wars, we want a real plan for victory. We will abandon the policy of reckless regime change favored by my opponent, and we will instead work with our allies to advance the core national security interests of the United States.”

Nina Therese Kasniunas, a political science professor at Goucher College, said the visit from Trump had a lot more to do with him portraying a certain image than his message.

“As he comes to cities like Baltimore, he’s trying to show he is expanding his reach to minorities, not just visiting cities populated mostly by working white middle-class men,” Kasniunas said. “It was very convenient for him to visit with him opening his new hotel in Washington, D.C., earlier in the day and then visiting Asheville, North Carolina later in the day.”

More than 100 people stood side-by-side outside the Transamerica Building at 100 E. Pratt St. to welcome Trump. Organizers sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” chanted “U.S.A. U.S.A.,” waved American Flags and encouraged drivers to honk their horns in support of Trump.

Elam Stoltzfus, 66, a real estate agent from Lancaster, Pa., sold Trump hats, T-Shirts and buttons at a roadside table. He said he is the third-largest  independent contributor to the Trump campaign, having spent more than $10,000 while following Trump to 13 different states across the country. All the money he generates through the sales go directly to the Trump campaign.

“He can balance a checkbook,” Stoltzfus said. “He does it every 30 days. The folks in Washington, D.C., don’t have a clue, so I just want to support someone who is going to put Americans first before anyone else.”

On the other side of the street, meanwhile, the Peoples Power Assembly organized a raucous demonstration to denounce Trump, whose adversaries shouted, “Black lives matter,” “Dump Trump” and “Hey hey, ho ho, Donald Trump has got to go.”

Owen Silverman Andrews, a 29-year-old member of the Jewish community who teaches English as a second language, said he has a number of reservations with Trump. For one, Andrews feels Trump has a troubling image that is widely regarded as anti-Semitic, citing the example of Trump stereotyping Jewish business people.

“I just want to call on people here in the Jewish community in Baltimore and elsewhere to get involved,” Andrews said. “This is not someone else’s problem — this is our problem. We shouldn’t be the people of ‘never again’ for us, but we should be the people of ‘never again’ for anyone.”

In heavily Democratic Maryland, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, the state has not voted for a Republican presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan won his second term in 1988. A poll conducted last week by Annapolis-based OpinionWorks concluded that Trump was trailing Clinton by 29 points in the Old Line State.

Even with Trump making a last-ditch effort to appeal to Maryland voters, Kasniunas isn’t convinced it will be enough when the election rolls around.

“I still don’t think Trump will generate much support from voters in Maryland despite the visit,” Kasniunas said. “For him, it’s all about getting as much support from outside his core constituents as possible and rallying independent voters to come out to the polls for him.”

Updated 9/14/16 from an earlier 9/12/16 post.

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com