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A Golden Opportunity

For the first time since the event was founded in 2000, the Greater Baltimore JCC played host to more than 700 middle school athletes, their families and their coaches for last Sunday’s Junior Maccabi Games. The young athletes, ages 10 to 12, competed in baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis and table tennis at the Owings Mills JCC, McDonogh School, Stevenson University, Owings Mills High School, New Town High School and Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School.

The all-day event, which kicked off Saturday night with a pregame party and Havdalah service, was chaired by Larry Plant and Ben Zager and organized by Paul Lurie, senior program director and Junior Maccabi director, and Brad Kerxton, director of middle school services.

“Everyone is here to represent a Jewish community, and all of us are coming together at the games,” said Barak Hermann, president of the JCC, on the day of the event. “It gives us another reason to be proud and to celebrate our Jewish heritage.”

Dan Kurtz of Bucks County, Pa., the father of 11-year-old Olivia, who competed in girls’ soccer for the second year in a row, said the Games were a great experience.

“It was well organized, and they have great facilities. It’s always nice to see a lot of Jewish kids together,” he said. “The games were competitive and honored the spirit of competition, but there was a different feeling than a regular soccer game.”

Stephanie and Marc Cramer of Newtown, Pa., were at the JCC with their 11-year-old son, Ben, a first-time Junior Maccabi basketball player.

“Ben had a great time, meeting kids from other communities,” said Stephanie Cramer. “It was wonderful to see kids playing the games they love with other Jewish kids.

“This facility is amazing,” she added. “We don’t even have a JCC where we live. We have to drive 25 minutes to get to the Princeton/Mercer/Bucks County JCC. Our kids don’t get to be around other Jewish kids like this except at summer camp.”

The Cramers hope their son will participate in the teen Maccabi games when he is old enough.

Cory Rosen’s son, Drew, a 12-year-old Beth Tfiloh student who competed in the basketball competition, plans to participate in the teen Maccabi games next year. Drew plays for his school team and in the Reisterstown recreation league. Rosen, who spends a lot of her time driving her son to his games, was happy that the Junior Maccabi Games took place so close to home.

“Here’s what’s unbelievable,” said Emily Goren, a past Maccabi chair. “When I came in [to work on the Maccabi games] there were 200 kids; [this year] there were almost 800.”

Lurie was equally enthusiastic about the growth of the event.

“At first, the games were more regional. Now we get a great cross-section of participants,” he said. “We have a fantastic steering committee, who had been working to bring this off since January.”

Concession stand volunteer Mark Hotz was happy the weather held up.

“Everyone had a good time, and this really shows off Baltimore and our JCC,” he said.

“We hope they’ll all be inspired to participate in the senior games,” said Hermann. “It’s another experience [for the youngsters] to add to their Jewish memory bank.”

Many Baltimore Athletes Took Home Medals

Table Tennis
Avi Goldman — gold
Noah Brenner — gold
Eliav Hamburger — bronze

Boys’ Soccer
Baltimore’s gold soccer team — bronze

Emily Freeman — bronze
Jordan Osterweil — silver
Ethan Silverstein — silver
Vladislav Sergiev — bronze
Brendan Stein — silver
Sydney Huber — silver
Ronen Segal — bronze

Jensen Friedman — gold for 200 IM, 500 freestyle
Julia Shpigel — gold for 200 IM, 500 freestyle
Jensen Friedman, Julia Shpigel, Danella Indenbaum, Elyana Fine — gold for girls’ relay

Out of Pikesville Comes Cantors

Longtime Pikesville High School music teacher Richard Disharoon can’t say for sure that he pushed students to the cantorate, but it’s at least an interesting coincidence that four former members of the Pikesville choir are now cantors.

“I don’t know how much that had to do with [it],” said Disharoon. “But it’s a proud thing to be able to say that their choir experience may have had some influence of them.”

Opera singer and cantor Benjamin Warschawski attributes much of his path to blossoming at Pikesville, where Disharoon introduced him to classical music.

“Dr. Disharoon really was instrumental in creating all of this,” said Warschawski, a member of the class of 1993. “I ate it all up.”

Warschawski spends his time these days as a traveling opera singer and is a cantor on the High Holidays at Ezra-Habonim, the Niles Township Jewish Congregation in the suburbs north of Chicago.

He played percussion in the high school band and would spend his free time in the band room learning how to play “just about every brass instrument.” He performed in a musical and realized that he had a big voice that might be well suited for classical music. Having been born in Switzerland, he decided to look into classical music that could draw on his multilingual abilities. Disharoon showed him pieces that fed this interest.

It was at that point he decided he’d study singing.

“I actually really just wanted to study opera. I have cantors in my background, and coming from an Orthodox background, it was a natural fit,” said Warschawski. “I became a cantor because I studied opera.”

Disharoon got him into the Beth Tfiloh choir, where he would later become assistant cantor. Soon after, he got an offer from Ner Tamid, so he went and got his ordination quickly.

“I kind of had this little cantorial concert career going at 19, 21,” he said. “At 39, I’ve now officiated 20 years of High Holidays, which is kind of weird to say.”

Cantor Mike Shochet, a 1980 Pikesville graduate, took a more circuitous route to the pulpit. He was very involved in Temple Emanuel of Baltimore, where his father was president and his uncle was a founding member, and sang in the Pikesville High choir. But his involvement in Pikesville’s communications program and an internship at WJZ put him on the path to being a television reporter.

“Music gave meaning to my life, but it didn’t direct my life at the moment,” said Shochet. “But the impression that the choir and Dick Disharoon had on my life was actually pretty meaningful.”

Shochet worked for several years as a general assignment reporter at WMAR, became a Baltimore City police officer for two years and then spent some more time in television. However, it was when Temple Emanuel Rabbi Gustav Buchdahl pointed out that Shochet’s synagogue life made him the happiest that Shochet gave serious thought to becoming a cantor.

He enrolled in Hebrew Union College and got to be Temple Emanuel’s first student cantor. After graduating in 1994, he spent four years at a congregation in New Orleans, and then found his way back to the area. He has been cantor at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., for 16 years. He’s even brought Disharoon and the Pikesville choir down to sing with him at the temple.

“He was such a supportive mensche,” Shochet said of Disharoon. “He cared about every single student and instilled in all of us a love of music and a love of choral music and a desire to really strive for musical perfection.

“A lot of things contributed, I think, ultimately to what I do now,” Shochet continued, “Pikesville High School and the choir specifically.”

Remembering in Howard County

In sharp contrast to the spring-like weather and bright skies this past Sunday, a standing-room-only crowd filled Howard County’s Oakland Mills Interfaith Center to commemorate what most believe is the darkest period in modern history. This year’s Yom Hashoah commemoration was dedicated to the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust, said Rabbi Seth L. Bernstein of Columbia’s Bet Aviv Congregation, who chaired this year’s event.

It was Bernstein’s idea to build the commemorative service around a performance of “Cantata: Childhood Memories,” written by Cantor Stephen Freedman and adapted, produced and directed by Toby Orenstein of Toby’s Dinner Theatre, Cantor Jan Morrison of Columbia Jewish Congregation and Stephanie Gurwitz Zurier. The rabbi first heard the cantata in 1990, when it was performed in Worcester, Mass.

“People still talked about it 15 years later,” said Bernstein, who explained that the cantata was a means of honoring Holocaust child victims, while it also exposed the young people of Howard County’s Jewish community to the horrific events that fellow Jews underwent. The afternoon program also included prayers, performances by the cantors of Howard County’s Jewish Community and a Yom Hashoah candle-lighting service.

Amy Steinhorn, 13, and her sister Julie, 14, were among the 24 young vocalists who performed along with actors Robert Biederman, Susan Porter and Lilly Ulman. Amy, Julie, their 18-year-old sister, Alyssa, and their cousin, Rachel Steinhorn Raful, accompanied their 85-year-old grandmother, Harriet Steinhorn-Roth, who survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, as she lit candles during the commemorative service for those who perished in the Holocaust.

Amy Steinhorn said that being part of the children’s choir was especially meaningful to her because of her grandmother’s history.

“My grandmother and her mother and some of their cousins survived, but her two sisters and father didn’t make it,” she said. “I felt I was honoring them.”

The girls’ father, Mark Steinhorn of Highland, Md., was a member of the Howard County Yom Hashoah Holocaust Remembrance Committee.

“My mother was born in Lodz, Poland in 1929,” he said. “She was 10 years old when the war began.”

At that point, he said, the family was forced to move to Poland’s Skarzysko Ghetto. Three years later, Steinhorn-Roth was separated from her family and sent to a series of forced-labor concentration camps.

“[In Bergen-Belsen] she was 14 years old and very sick. The Nazis used to move all the sick to the infamous Barrack 9. [Because they were sick] they weren’t useful to the Germans, so every week Barrack 9 was emptied, and all of the inmates were taken out, shot and put in mass graves,” said Steinhorn.

Steinhorn-Roth, who now lives in Silver Spring, escaped death because of her sister, Lita, who managed to sneak out of the ghetto and came to the fence of the camp to give Steinhorn-Roth a pillow, a stack of photographs and a letter from their parents. A Jewish guard at the fence coveted the pillow so Steinhorn- Roth’s sister made a deal, said Steinhorn.

“She told him, ‘I’ll bring you a pillow if you promise to take care of my sister.’ A man and a woman came to Barrack 9, covered my mother with a blanket and brought her to the men’s barracks, where they nursed her back to health. When she was leaving the barrack, all the sick people were yelling to her, ‘Tell them what happened here!’ Watching my mother, 71 years later, lighting the candle surrounded by her granddaughters today, I was thinking back to all those sick people,” said Steinhorn.

Steinhorn said his mother had always felt compelled to tell her story, even writing a book of plays for children called “Shadows of the Holocaust” based upon her memories. Steinhorn-Roth also taught religious school at Shaare Tefila Congregation in Silver Spring.

As part of the commemoration, some individuals lent Holocaust-related artifacts for a lobby display. The Steinhorn family lent a photo of Pinchas Feldman, father of Harriet Steinhorn-Roth, grandfather of Mark Steinhorn and great-grandfather of Alyssa, Julie and Amy Steinhorn, that was taken in the Skarzysko Ghetto in 1940.

Maly Moses, 85, lent a jacket worn by a concentration camp victim that her late husband, Salomon Moses, who survived Mauthausen, brought with him after the camp was liberated when he was 22.

“He was 35 pounds when he was saved. They brought him out on a stretcher and put him in an Army hospital,” said Moses, a survivor of a labor camp in Siberia, where she and her family lived from 1939 to 1945. After the war, Moses’ family returned to Poland. She met her husband when he also returned to Poland, hoping to find someone from his family.

“One day I was going to school and a handsome man came toward me,” recalled Moses. “He wanted to know if the town had a Jewish community. I said, ‘Yes,’ I’ll take you there. He said, ‘You’re Jewish?’ I thought you were a shiksa!’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m Jewish.’

“So I brought him to my house, and we gave him chicken soup and all kinds of Jewish food and he fell in love — not with me but with my mother and father. I believe in beshert. If I hadn’t been on that street corner and he hadn’t walked by, we would never have met.”

Turning to the event, Moses exclaimed, “The kids should know about this. We’re dying!”

Yom Hashoah was also commemorated in Baltimore at the Baltimore Jewish Council’s annual program held at Beth Tfiloh Congregation in its Dahan Sanctuary. Approximately 550 people turned out for the Sunday event, which included a tribute to Leo Bretholz, who passed away on March 8. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) presented Bretholz’s family with the final pen Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley used to sign railway legislation in 2011 that passed unanimously. The legislation requires all rail companies applying to work in Maryland to disclose any involvement with the Nazis during the Holocaust.

The program included a candle-lighting ceremony in memory of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Candles were lit by Hermien Hamburger, Bertha Schwarz, Harold Weiss, Adam Block, Frania Block, Nancy Kutler and Tracy Paliath. Special recognition was given to the memory of Inge Weinberger, who passed away in August 2013.

The keynote address was presented by Menachem Rosensaft, founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.

At the ceremony, the Ponczak-Greenblatt Families Holocaust Endowment Fund awarded three students with Israel bonds for their winning essays that answered the questions, “What are the most important lessons of the Holocaust?” and “Why must they be taught to every generation?” Carley Bynion of The John Carroll School won first place, second place went to Alisha Zaveri of Perry Hall High School and third place went to Mason Bernstein of the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School.

“As more survivors are leaving us, it is essential that we, as a community, honor their memory and the memory of those that remain,” said Erika Schon, chair of the Holocaust Remembrance Commission.

Bombs Away

An Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft releases a GBU-28 bunker-buster 5,000-pound laser-guided bomb over the Utah Test and Training Range. Some have proposed that the U.S. provide Israel with the largest bunker-buster bombs in the American arsenal to help restore the administration’s leverage in its  nuclear negotiations with Iran. (TSGT MICHAEL AMMONS; USAF via Wikimedia Commons)

An Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft releases a GBU-28 bunker-buster 5,000-pound laser-guided bomb over the Utah Test and Training Range. Some have proposed that the U.S. provide Israel with the largest bunker-buster bombs in the American arsenal to help restore the administration’s leverage in its
nuclear negotiations with Iran. (TSGT MICHAEL AMMONS; USAF via Wikimedia Commons)

Alarmed by what they believe to be diplomatic failures by the Obama administration in nuclear negotiations with Iran, leading scholars of a Washington-based think tank have proposed that the United States provide Israel with the largest bunker-buster bombs in the U.S. arsenal to help restore the administration’s leverage in its negotiations.

In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal on April 8, Michael Makovsky, chief executive officer of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and a former Pentagon official — along with retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the former chief of Air Force intelligence and senior adviser to JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy — recommended that the U.S. provide Israel Defense Forces with GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) bombs.

Designed to bore deep into the ground before detonating rather than exploding on contact with the ground, the MOP would give Israel the ability to disable underground Iranian nuclear facilities if it deems that course of action necessary in case the P5+1 nuclear negotiations in Geneva fail, the authors say.

According to Makovsky and Deptula, the administration has erroneously broken with sound negotiating judgment by eliminating deterrents that could have leveraged Iran to pursue meaningful negotiations. The Obama administration has taken a firm stance against efforts in Congress to add — or threaten to add — greater sanctions on Iran if a deal falls through. The administration believes additional sanctions will lose Iranian trust and cooperation in the negotiating process.

Additionally, they wrote, the historical deterrent used to back diplomacy — the threat of military action — is no longer credible.

“President Obama has already taken one potential source of leverage off the table by promising to veto legislation that threatens tighter economic sanctions on Iran,” Makovsky and Deptula wrote. “This leaves military pressure as the only option. But after the Obama administration’s unenforced ‘red lines’ in Syria and Ukraine, Iran is understandably dismissive of the threat of U.S. military action. That leaves Israel.”

The idea is not unusual in U.S.-Israel relations. In 2012, Congress passed the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act, which declared that the U.S. would ensure that Israel maintains its “qualitative military edge” over its regional threats. President Barack Obama signed the law and assured Israelis that “[we] will do what it takes to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge — because Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”

The U.S. has already provided Israel with smaller 2,000- and 5,000-pound bunker-buster bombs — largely ineffective against Iranian nuclear targets — and recently delivered a KC-135 Stratotanker airplane to give Israel mid-air refueling capabilities.

But GBU-57 weighs in at 30,000 pounds, and the IDF does not have the capability to deliver such massive ordinance.

Only two planes in the U.S. can deliver it: the B-2 Spirit bomber — the highly advanced, stealth, backbone of modern U.S. bombers — and the ancient B-52 Stratofortress that, despite its age, is still very capable and has been operated by the U.S. for more than 50 years.

Makovsky and Deptula recommend that several decommissioned B-52H bombers be taken from the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona and provided with the bombs.

“There are more than a dozen of the relatively ‘newest’ B-52H bombers built in the early 1960s in storage,” the op-ed stated. “Some of these should be delivered to Israel. There’s no legal or policy impediments to their transfer; they would just have to be refurbished and retrofitted to carry the MOP.”

Makovsky told the Washington Jewish Week that despite listing what he sees as failure in the administration’s Iran policy in the article, their proposed idea is intended to help the negotiations without violating any part of Geneva’s framework agreement.

“I think that there’s really no legitimate reason why anyone would oppose this,” Makovsky said. “I think it’s a prudent thing to do, and the only argument that some in the administration might say is, ‘Oh, it will undercut the negotiations with Iran,’ which is what they said about sanctions, but I don’t see that because this was already pledged two years ago in the Israel Security Enhancement Act.”

Though the act specified the delivery of the fuel tankers and other indirect military cooperation, it is not exclusive, and Makovsky says that there’s no difference between delivering an airplane for mid-air refueling — giving Israeli jets the ability to make long-distance bombing runs — and giving or selling the actual weapon and delivery system. Both extend Israeli military capabilities.

Since it does not directly involve Iran like additional sanctions or military threats by the U.S., Makovsky argues that negotiations would not be affected. But the idea is meant to send a clear message to Iranian leaders: The U.S. may not do anything if Iran backs away from the negotiating table or continues nuclear enrichment, but Israel will now have the capability to effectively destroy Iranian nuclear targets, said Makovsky .

Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, told WJW that he thinks Israel will be a credible threat to the Iranians.

“I think the Israelis view negotiations between the U.S. and the other P5+1 powers in Iran with a great deal of trepidation because they don’t see anything irrevocable happening to the Iranian nuclear program,” said Berman. “They see tactical concessions, but these are hard choices that are being deferred; they’re not being eliminated entirely.”

Berman said that the proposal covers the “fundamental problems” with Iranian diplomacy. In other words, the proposal purposefully avoids providing the administration reasons to shoot it down as it did with sanctions earlier this year. It also, according to Berman, “keys up Israel as the bad cop to Geneva’s good cop.”

“I think that’s a very savvy way to indirectly rejoin the ideas of diplomacy. It’s certainly not anything that would torpedo the administration’s diplomatic efforts,” said Berman, “because after all, the idea here would be if the Geneva deal is a good deal — the deal that results from it — then there’s no need for this anyway.”

Makovsky and Deptula have begun working to get traction for their idea among policymakers, both within the administration and on Capitol Hill. Makovsky believes that support could be built in Congress to pressure the administration into action. He points to Congress playing an essential role in pressuring the administration to pass the first round of sanctions that is credited with bringing Iran to the negotiating table.

“This goes beyond just the debate on sanctions — which I think has disproportionally absorbed the debate,” Makovsky said. “This goes beyond that and adds another element of how to put more pressure on Iranians while also fulfilling the pledge to the Israelis.”

Berman agrees, saying that the move would also help the U.S. reassure Israelis that if the talks break down, they at least have an implicit understanding that “they [the Israelis] have to do what they have to do.” Also, according to Berman, pursuing legislation in Congress would, in this case, be the proper course of action.

“Congress has done much more than individual administrations consistently over the lifespan of the U.S.-Israel relationship to reinforce the bonds between Washington and Jerusalem,” said Berman. “So Congress is a good place to start in driving this discussion. Administrations come and go, but the pro-Israel sentiment in Congress has proven to be remarkably resilient.” contributed to this story.

Chametz Burned, Donated at Pimlico

The Baltimore community gathered at the Pimlico Race Course Clubhouse parking lot on Monday, April 14, to burn and donate its chametz just before the start of Passover.

The pre-Passover tradition involves ridding homes of leavened foods to prepare for the holiday. For the second year, community members were not only able to burn their opened chametz, but to donate their unopened chametz as well. The collection, organized by the nonprofit Park Heights Renaissance, benefited food pantries in northwest Baltimore.

“I came up with the idea a couple of years ago, when not only witnessing [and] realizing how much unopened food we throw out, but also when members of the community asked if we could place food on the church’s step  across the street from the race course,” Betsy Gardner, the neighborhood liaison for the Jewish community in the 5th, 6th and 7th Baltimore districts for City Council President Bernard C. ‘Jack’ Young, said via email.

The event was organized by the city of Baltimore, Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. (CHAI), The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and Star-K.

America’s Other Pastime

For years, the clicking of the colorful tiles taunted Donna Beth Joy Shapiro. She wanted to learn the game, but she couldn’t find anyone to teach her.

“It was the most mysterious thing my mother did,” said Shapiro of her mother’s regular mah jongg games.

Finally, Shapiro attended an instructional event hosted by the Jewish Museum of Maryland last month as part of its Late Night on Lloyd program.

“It just seemed like something a member of the Tribe should know how to do,” said Shapiro. As a former antique dealer, she had collected a lot of mah jongg-themed goods over the years — even a wooden set, although the sound of the wooden tiles never quite satisfied her.

“I love the sound of the clicks,” she said. “It’s about the sound.”

Whether they were introduced to the game by their aunt, mother, grandmother or someone else, for many Jews, mah jongg was a part of family life growing up.

“People speak of the ‘ancient game of mah jongg,’” said Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the JMM, where the mah jongg exhibit, “Project Mah Jongg,” opened March 30, “but there’s no such thing.”

Rather, said Pinkert, the origins of the modern version of the game date back to the mid-19th century, when tiles began being used in place of card strips. In the early 1920s, American businessman Joseph Babcock took a liking to the game while living overseas and began importing sets to the United States.

“It’s like the Beatles coming to New York,” described Pinkert of the way the game took the country by storm. Just as everything “mod” was in while he was growing up, “everything that was of Oriental character [became] popular” in the 1920s flapper culture.

Young people looking to distinguish themselves from their parents’ generation were lured by the exotic style and games of Eastern culture. From mah jongg-themed clothing sketches by modern fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi to mah jongg dolls, a lot of the museum’s exhibit, which ends June 29, explores the game’s effects on popular culture.

“It [became] such a fad that it [affected] everything around it,” said Pinkert, noting that The Saturday Evening Post even featured an illustration of a flapper playing mah jongg on its Jan. 5, 1924 cover.

By the end of the ’20s, the craze had largely died out. But when the Great Depression hit and Jewish charities were looking for creative ways to raise money, the game made a comeback as a fun way to “go retro,” said Pinkert.

In 1937, the National Mah Jongg League was formed. The initial meeting was attended by some 200 ladies, said Pinkert, most of whom were Jewish.

“Now it becomes Jewish culture,” he said.

The National Mah Jongg League established a standard set of rules for American players to follow. Unlike Chinese mah jongg, the mah jongg played by American women of the 1930s involved score calculator cards and multiple winning hands.

By the 1940s, women had begun to rely on mah jongg as a part of regular life.

“In the ’40s, with men away at war, mah jongg became part of the way women kept their social sphere alive,” said Pinkert.

The game quickly became an integral part of “the good life” for American Jewish women, he detailed. Vacations to the Catskills and Miami began to include hours spent playing with the tiles.

“Project Mah Jongg” originated in New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust and illustrates not only the game’s history, but also its role in the community.

“What began as a Chinese game is now part of the Jewish American narrative,” said Melissa Martens Yaverbaum, director of collections and exhibitions at the New York museum and curator of the traveling exhibit.

Designed by Pentagram Design, it takes the viewer through a chronological journey through the life of the game, from China to America. Complete with audio stations, where viewers can listen to interviews with mah jongg players and the clicking of mah jongg tiles, “Project Mah Jongg” allows the viewer to step into a larger-than-life game. The centerpiece of the design is a table set for people to play on, surrounded by large tile-shaped frames filled with memorabilia and game pieces. Along the outside of the display are cultural items related to the game, such as fashion designs and vacation photos. At the apex of the display, tying everything together, is a large Star of David.

For Pinkert, the exhibit brings him back to his childhood.

“I grew up in the next room listening to the clatter of mah jongg tiles,” he said of his mother’s regular game nights.

Lois Madow is president and CEO of the Baltimore-based American Mah-Jongg Association. In addition to providing access to lessons and tournaments, the organization also hosts one or two two-week tournaments at sea each year.

“The game is very popular in Baltimore,” Madow said in an email sent during her latest mah jongg cruise, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Barcelona. “Just go to almost any restaurant in Pikesville and you will see people playing. Of course, a lot of people play in their home [as well].”

With 3,000 people on the group’s mailing list, the American Mah-Jongg Association is easily one of the biggest names in Western mah jongg. In addition to event sign-ups and sets for purchase, the group’s website also features mah jongg-themed bags, jewelry, license plates, clothing and other items for sale.

The Fight for Pigtown

Photos by David Stuck

The revitalization of Baltimore’s most un-kosher neighborhood, historic Pigtown, is being led — perhaps surprisingly — by a Jew.

Ben Hyman is the executive director of Pigtown Main Street, one of 10 Main Street programs sponsored by the Baltimore Development Corporation. Though he doesn’t eat pork, his world, in many ways, revolves around the hoofed animal.

“If you care about a city, you want to see its neighborhoods succeed,” said Hyman, 25, who grew up in Mount Washington, graduated from The Park School and returned to Baltimore after studying geography at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

He worked in City Hall for a time before spotting a job posting for the Main Streets program in Pigtown.

Having not spent much time in the area aside from parking there for an occasional Orioles or Ravens game, when he landed the job, Hyman half jokingly consulted his rabbi at Bolton Street Synagogue — where his father had been president — about whether or not he should take the offer. While the rabbi supported his new career path, said Hyman, “he encouraged me not to eat pork.”

Baltimore’s Main Streets program, which began in 2000, is designed to attract businesses and support jobs in designated areas by providing access to marketing, financial and technical support for business owners. In Pigtown, that area is a three-block corridor of Washington Boulevard, approximately between West Barre Street and Wyeth Street.

The neighborhood’s name can be traced to the 19th century, when the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad would release its porcine cargo to be collected in the local slaughterhouses. Urban renewal efforts attempted to rebrand the Southwestern neighborhood as Washington Village, but many residents refused, and the name “Pigtown” has largely stuck.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the neighborhood west of Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium had a reputation for drugs and violence.

“What we’re facing here is kind of competing forces,” said Hyman, noting that the neighborhood sits between downtown Baltimore and notorious West Baltimore. “Pigtown is still work-ing through some of those issues.”

Hyman proudly stated that nine new businesses have moved into Pigtown’s commercial district since January 2013, reducing the area’s commercial vacancy by 57 percent. He was equally proud of the district’s ability to retain businesses.

A lot of the program’s attention has gone toward improving the neighborhood’s curb appeal, he said. In addition to arranging partnerships with local landscaping companies to provide trees and flowers for the sidewalks, the Main Street program has been working to enforce an existing ordinance that bans bars on windows. This means getting many local shop owners to remove them, a project Hyman said is ongoing but largely successful.

“People come here and get an idea about a neighborhood just by walking around,” said Hyman. “It may seem ticky-tack, but to us it’s vital.”

It was enough to sell Garba Diop, owner of Afro Fashion and Art, on the Baltimore neighborhood.

“When I came here I didn’t see any fences on windows,” said Diop, a native of Senegal. “I said, ‘This area is safe.’”

Diop worked as a cab driver in New York City for 17 years before moving to Baltimore to join his family. When he decided to open his own business selling African jewelry, bongos, bags, shoes, clothes and art inaddition to staples such as cell-phone accessories, he found the Main Street program could help him get started.

Son of a Stitch

Photos provided

The sewing machine looked harmless enough until it almost shot him.

Mike Peisach, a veteran of the Korean War, fished a live .32-caliber bullet from under the needle plate of a machine during a routine repair. Peisach, who started repairing sewing machines when he was 15, has handed down death warrants on many machines, but this was the first one that fought back.

“She brought it in for repairs and wanted to know why it wouldn’t work. The wheel was jammed and I took the needle plates off and found it. If I’d turned the crank hard enough, the arm would’ve hit the bullet,” said Peisach.

When the woman returned for her machine Peisach asked her why she tried to shoot him.

Sheepishly, she blamed her son: “We were missing some shells.”

Peisach handed her the bullet, her working machine and suggested she watch her kids while she was sewing.

Peisach, 82, is one of the last remaining sewing machine repairmen in the Baltimore area. Working out of Weiner’s Vacs in Owings Mills, Peisach estimates he fixes 10 to 15 sewing machines a week. Most of his customers are older and dedicated to machines they’ve used for years. Peisach said that the new machines operate with a “planned obsolescence” of four to five years.

“When it stops working, they throw it away and buy a new one. It can take an hour to take apart a new machine just to move a screw,” said Peisach. With today’s cheaper sewing machines, the repairs can be costlier than the machine itself.

But for customers attached to an older machine that they’re not willing to trash, Peisach is ready with 62 sewing machines stacked up in a corner of his tidy basement for extra parts. Peisach explains that while looking different on the outside, about five manufacturers made the bulk of the sewing machines, so the insides are the same in many older machines.

Even if the machines are similar, they’re all special to Peisach.

“I have an illusion. My thought is I own all the sewing machines in the world and I let people use them,” he said with a smile. “When they abuse them, I get very angry at them.”

Peisach, wearing a dapper brown vest over a crisp button down shirt on a Sunday afternoon, proudly showed off a picture of his parents in a frame shaped like a Singer sewing machine. A statue of a character from “Fiddler on the Roof” bent over a sewing machine is perched nearby. “My favorite part,” said Peisach as his trim and energetic wife, Barbara, bustled through the house keeping Peisach on point.

Baltimore Bound

Peisach’s family moved from Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Baltimore in 1939. They happened to move on Halloween, and Peisach, 8 at the time, was in awe.

“It was 95 percent Jewish in Brighton Beach,” he recalled. “They didn’t really celebrate Halloween, and it was a big deal in Baltimore. I thought ‘Where did they take us?’”

Peisach’s parents emigrated from the Crimea area in Russia. His father’s friend, Willy Harris, “mishpocheh” according to Peisach, arrived on the same boat and was like an uncle to him. Harris moved to Philadelphia and opened a sewing machine company. Peisach’s parents were in the fish business but looking for a change due to his mother’s rheumatism.

Harris suggested they move to Baltimore and start their own sewing machine company. He helped them get started, and they opened the New York Sewing Machine Exchange in the 700 block of West Baltimore Street. In 1941, his father bought 11 N. Eutaw St. and moved the company to the new location. Peisach, his two sisters and his parents lived in a three-bedroom apartment upstairs. His parents worked the store, and Peisach helped after school.

“My first job was putting belts on treadle machines,” said Peisach. “I couldn’t get into much trouble that way.”

Peisach “learned at the bench” as he described it, working side by side with his father. When he was 16, his father handed him the keys to the car and told him he was on delivery duty that day.

They sold both factory- and family-type sewing machines and did repairs. Many customers were one- and two-man tailor shops. Wardrobe mistresses with traveling shows appearing at Ford’s Theatre or the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre always stopped at the New York Sewing Machine Exchange to get their sewing machines tuned up. The Exchange worked with Towson University’s theater department through the 1970s.

Peisach took over the family business in 1961 and ran it through 1990, when he sold the company. Until a couple of years ago, Peisach worked with Hancock Fabrics, traveling to their stores and fixing their customers’ machines. Peisach needed a new gig. His wife had vacuums serviced at Weiner’s Vacs, and it gave Peisach an idea. Customers could drop their machines with Morris Weiner at Weiner’s Vacs, and he could bring them home for repairs. Historically, vacuums and sewing machines were often sold at the same store since they attract the same type of customer.

Peisach, who’s allergic to dust and dirt, had no interest in vacuums, and Weiner never worked with sewing machines.

“I thought it was a wonderful idea. Sewing machines and vacuums go hand in hand,” said Weiner. He added that he and Peisach were such old hands that they could practically tell what was wrong with a machine as the customer walked through the door.

Back in their Pikesville home, the “starter home” that they’ve lived in for 60 years, according to Barbara Peisach, the couple showed pictures of their nine grandchildren and served hamantashen and coffee with hazelnut creamer.

Peisach’s two sons and one daughter didn’t take up the family business, but Peisach has no plans to hang up his tools and stop repairing sewing machines.

“Old sewing machine guys don’t die,” he remarked. “They just stitch away.”

To contact Peisach for a repair, call 410-274-6161. He’ll even make house calls in the Northwest section of Baltimore.

Amy Lynwander is a local freelance writer.

Dressing the Part

Photos by David Stuck

Lions, tigers, ninjas, super heroes and crayons are just some of the characters that will be wandering the streets in celebration of Purim in a couple days.

“I’m very into themes,” said Rachel Lasson, who attended Ner Tamid’s Pre-Purim Carnival last weekend. She picks a theme each year for dressing up her family. Last year’s theme was “The Cat in the Hat.” This year’s theme is “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” and each of her children, Mali, Layla and Eitan, attended the carnival dressed as a different animal.

(Within the first hour of the party, the mane was off the lion, and the tiger had swapped her fur for leggings and a tunic.)

With activities such as bounce houses, potato sack races and obstacle courses set up all over the building on March 9, there was no shortage of fun for the young bears, kings and knights, who were escorted by their parents and grandparents. The same could be said for the Jewish Federation of Howard County’s Purim Palooza Carnival at Reservoir High School in Fulton, where hundreds of attendees — bedecked in fairy outfits, action hero get-ups and the ubiquitous animal costumes — made the event the federation’s largest of the year.

Community Purim events this coming weekend — the holiday, which commemorates the Jewish victory over a Persian decree thousands of years ago, begins Saturday night — will likewise feature costumed children of all ages, but Jewish tradition maintains that there’s actually a method to the madness. The fun and revelry, specifically of the costumed kind, emphasizes Purim’s key themes, even though you won’t find a commandment to wear costumes anywhere in the Scroll of Esther’s telling of the Purim story, explained Rabbi Elchonon Lisbon, director of Chabad of Park Heights.

“It’s consistent with the theme of the holiday,” said Lisbon, “which is the miraculous transformation of a day that could have meant utter tragedy and destruction to one of the most holy days on the Jewish calendar.”

Costumes allow people to present themselves as things they’re not in celebration of that transformation. In addition, said Lisbon, a major theme of the holiday is revealing that which had been earlier concealed: Mordechai, one of King Achashverosh’s advisers, told Queen Esther to hide her Jewish identity, but when the king offered Esther whatever she wanted, she revealed her identity to stop Haman’s plot to exterminate her people.

At the end of the story, Haman was hung from the very same gallows he built for Mordechai. So on Purim, every- thing is upside down or transformed, said Lisbon.

But the miracle of Purim is also celebrated by the specific mitzvahs outlined in the Scroll of Esther: giving gifts, known as shelach manot, to acquaintances, charity to the poor, publicly reading the scroll and enjoying a feast.

In the 16th century, the nature of the celebration began morphing into its modern costumed version, according to Rabbi Barry Freundel, a professor of Jewish studies at Towson University. Jews escaped German persecution by fleeing to Italy, namely the Padua region, where they were
introduced to Italian street fairs.

“Jews, for Purim, started doing their street festivals the same way as the Paduans did,” explained Freundel. “They dressed up in costumes.”

When one pious man asked his rabbi about whether or not their actions were violating Jewish law, the rabbi responded that Purim is a holy day and exceptions can be made, but the community could reassess the previous year’s festivities each year before Purim to make sure things didn’t get out of hand.

“Shortly thereafter there were all kinds of letters challenging this ruling, not having this ruling; it didn’t matter. It got into the culture, and forevermore the Paduan street festival makes its way into synagogues around Purim,” said Freundel.

The free choice of costumes, he said, is a direct effect of the street festivals and the sense of freedom to dress as you please.

Photos by Noam Lewis

Fallon Saposnik and her husband will be dressing up as characters from “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory” for their first Purim as a married couple.

“Being festive and happy is such a big part of the holiday,” she said. “Not only should you bring joy to yourself, but you should bring joy to those around you.”

She expects friends to get a kick out of her husband dressed as an Oompa Loompa, and her costume of Violet Beauregarde — the girl who turns into a blueberry — as a blueberry.

Their shelach manot runs with the Wonka theme and features blueberry muffins that Saponsnik made, Wonka’s Laffy Taffy, golden eggs and labels that look like golden tickets.

She’ll be going around Pikesville with a friend delivering the shelach manot, and she and her husband will also send them to family out of state and to her brother in Israel.

For larger families, the costumes can become a central part of the Purim celebration in which families make their own costumes and cover a lot of characters from the theme of their choice.

At Ner Tamid last weekend, for instance, Gladys Ricklis, a preschool teacher who attended with her grandchildren, decided to join in the fun and make herself a spider-web costume out of black felt and yarn by using a glue gun. Granddaughter Addie Shar came as a dog, complete with a black nose and whiskers.

Getting Addie into a costume isn’t a problem, said Ricklis. “She likes to dress up at home too.”

Rachel Turniansky, her husband and their five children are dressing as “Toy Story” characters. She’ll be Little Bo Peep; her husband will be
Emperor Zurg; her four sons will be Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Hamm the piggy bank and Mr. Potato Head; and her daughter will be Jessie.

“It’s such a fun holiday, and we really like to get into the spirit of things,” said Turniansky. “I think they like being creative and being able to let loose in this manner.”

All of the family’s costumes are homemade or purchased at thrift stores. Turniansky does a lot of crafts at home, and using scraps and other materials, she sews the costumes together. She gets hats, dresses and other accessories at thrift stores. This year, she used duct tape in the Emperor Zurg costume and fake leather for Woody’s boots.

At least one area woman acquired so many different costumes over the years that she now operates her own Purim gemach, a costume rental service.

“The first year my husband and I were married, he looked me in the eye and said, ‘You’re not dressing up. We’re dressing up,’ ” said Tzilah Raczkowski. “I think he regrets it.”

For the second year, she’s running the Keren Reva Costume Gemach out of her house. She estimates that her collection has about 500 costumes, more than 300 of which have been rented for this year.

“I saw there was a need in the community,” she said. After about a decade of loaning costumes to friends and friends of friends, she started running the Purim gemach out of her house and established hours open to the public. She spread the word through email, social media, synagogue bulletins, Facebook and word-of-mouth, she said.

The collection first got started with her family’s own costumes. Since they always did themes and never repeated costumes, the collection began to build up over the years. Raczkowski, a bargain shopper, finds costumes on eBay, looks for sales and even buys costumes through wholesalers.

Costumes cost $3 to rent, and while other cause-specific gemachs typically give proceeds to charity, she uses the money to acquire more costumes for the organization.

The most popular costumes, said Raczkowski, are firemen and policemen for boys and princess costumes for the girls. “Sesame Street” costumes, as well as Thing 1 and Thing 2 shirts — from Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat” — are popular this year, too.

While he’s not sure when costumes came into the picture, Lisbon welcomes the festivities.

“I think, for kids, it’s a fun thing. I think it’s a good way to get them to understand and appreciate the holiday,” he said. “As we adults get older, we internalize the message too.”

Promoting Aliyah

Photos by David Stuck

Nefesh B’Nefesh, the non-profit organization that promotes aliyah from North America and the United Kingdom, brought its Israeli immigration message to Baltimore this month, joining with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Jewish National Fund and the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption to host an aliyah fair at the Doubletree Pikesville on Reisterstown Road.

The March 5 event featured breakout sessions on navigating Israel’s bureaucracy, presentations from real estate developers and agents and the chance to speak with JAFI representatives on how to immigrate to the Jewish state.

According to Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization has assisted moer than 38,000 olim since its inception in 2002. More than 50,000 North American and British Jews have attended its pre-aliyah informational seminars, said the organization.

The Baltimore meeting came as part of a weeklong series of events in other cities, including Toronto, Montreal, Chicago and Los Angeles.

— Photos by David Stuck