Glen Berger. Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Wandering Jew leads Glen Berger on path to ‘Underneath the Lintel’


Glen Berger’s 1999 play, “Underneath the Lintel: An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences,” began when “I was getting over a breakup, living with my parents again and was fairly miserable,” Berger said from his home near Hudson, N.Y.

The playwright, 49, didn’t find solace in the Judaism he had studied at a Reform synagogue during his childhood in McLean, Va., which he had abandoned after his bar mitzvah. “I didn’t know if the religion spoke to me enough at that point to say, ‘This is something I’d like to continue,’ ” he said.

But during that troubled time, Berger “had an epiphany,” he said. “I got it into my head that there was a type of music that I really wanted to get my hands on. I kept going to the stores and would spend way too much money buying Balkan accordion music or Gypsy this and Armenian that. I kept orbiting around a kind of music I kept hearing in my head but couldn’t quite find.”

Berger had almost given up when, on a whim, he purchased a recording of klezmer songs from the 1920s. “As soon as I played it in my car on the way home, I knew this was it,” he said. “On a deep DNA level, it just spoke to me. There was a minor-key melancholy that at the same time was defiantly jaunty. It was shocking to me because I realized, ‘Oh, this is Jewish.’ ”

Berger also realized that much of his previous work had been inspired by his heritage, but in disguise. His 1991 play, “The Wooden Breeks,” spotlighted a lighthouse keeper who spends his days and nights studying tomes on natural history.

“I came to see that he was actually like a talmudic scholar,” Berger said. “And I’d written one-acts where I was describing these towns with crooked streets, which I thought were like 16th-century British villages. But the more I saw photographs of Jewish ghettos, the more I realized those places in my head more resembled shtetls. I concluded that if I couldn’t quite get into Judaism through the front door, the pure religiosity of it, maybe I could get in through the side door.”

And so Berger sought to write a play that evoked the spirit of klezmer music he perceived as “dancing despite it all.” His mind turned to the 13th-century legend of the Wandering Jew, a cobbler who supposedly refused to let Jesus rest in his lintel (doorway) on the way to his execution and was cursed by the condemned man to wander the earth until the end of days.

While the legend is anti-Semitic, Berger sought to reclaim the character as a more sympathetic figure who is harshly punished for trying to save his own life from threatening Roman soldiers.

“Underneath the Lintel,” which runs at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood from Oct. 10 to Nov. 19, became a metaphysical thriller, a one-man show narrated by an unnamed Dutch librarian who believes he is on the trail of the Wandering Jew. It all begins when he comes across a Baedeker’s travel guide that had been returned through the library’s book slot, 113 years overdue. Determined to track down the person who had returned the book and collect the fines, the librarian zeroes in on a dry-cleaning receipt from London that had been stashed in the book’s pages. When the address listed on the receipt turns out to be in China, the previously sedate librarian sets out on a worldwide quest to find the book’s borrower, whom he comes to believe is immortal.

Along the way, a series of clues helps him piece together the puzzle: among them, a love letter written in Yiddish by a woman in an Eastern European shtetl in 1906, and photographs the librarian finds in the archives at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.

“He is an ordinary man proceeding on an extraordinary journey, just like the Wandering Jew himself,” Berger said.

“Underneath the Lintel” premiered at the Actors’ Gang in Los Angeles in 2001, went on to have a successful off-Broadway run and to be showcased in hundreds of productions worldwide. It will feature Arye Gross when  it opens Oct. 10 at the Geffen Playhouse.

The playwright acknowledged that the Wandering Jew is a metaphor for the Jews as being eternally cursed for rejecting Jesus and supposedly abetting his execution. Some viewers have regarded the play as anti-Semitic; others have seen it as anti-Christian for portraying Jesus as being petty on his way to the cross.

“But a myth can be repurposed to suit our own needs,” Berger said. He cited a 1932 Yiddish-language film that features a compassionate depiction of the Wandering Jew, which was meant to serve as a warning against growing Nazism in Germany.

As for allegations that the play is anti-Christian, Berger argued that he depicted Jesus as a human being who becomes understandably cross with the cobbler who refuses to let him rest in his doorway.

“But the play actually has very little to do with Jews and Christians, and more to do with the active search for meaning and purpose in one’s life,” Berger said.

Gross, who also is Jewish, agreed.

“What interests me about the play is its focus on the moment in one’s life where you have to follow something that wasn’t in your plans,” the actor said. “It happened to Abraham, when suddenly there was a voice telling him to destroy idols and later demands him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. His hand was stayed, but still it’s an example of how something can show up in your life and you now have to follow a different road.”

The lintel of the title becomes a metaphor for standing at this kind of crossroads. And should one choose the wrong path, Berger said, the play explores “how you literally and figuratively keep moving forward.”

“Underneath the Lintel” will run Oct. 10 through Nov. 19 at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. Tickets available at http://www.geffenplayhouse.org/lintel.

Rabin Assassination: A Jewish Passion Play?


What do the arts tell us about the era we’re living in? A performance last week at New York’s Lincoln Center Festival brings that question back to mind.

The multimedia work Yitzhak Rabin: Chronicle of an Assassination treats the same subject that its creator, Amos Gitai, explored in his film Rabin, the Last Day (2015). Here he uses live actors and musicians, together with video montage, to tell the familiar story of the tragic events of October-November, 1995.

The production brings to mind the Christian Passion play, an Easter tradition that tells the story of the trial and death of Jesus. Indeed some of the music in Chronicle is by Johann Sebastian Bach, whose Passion According to St. Matthew is one of the greatest musical Passions. It’s a natural model for telling the tale of a redeemer who fell victim to a political execution.

In a Passion play the story may be told by a narrator called the Evangelist. Here that role is filled by the words of Leah Rabin, spoken as news footage of the time unspools on giant screens at the back of stage.  The hopes surrounding a Labor Party peace rally in Tel Aviv build in counterpoint to the rage against Rabin at a Likud Party rally in Jerusalem’s Zion Square. Some in the angry crowd call for “Death to Rabin”; in the St. Matthew Passion the chorus cries, “Lass ihn kreuzigen” – “Let him be crucified.”

Any morality tale needs a villain, and both stories have a betrayer. In Gitai’s narrative it’s Benyamin Netanyahu, who stepped up to address the Likud rally, and who became prime minister a year later. Gitai implies that history might have been different had Netanyahu not added fuel to the flames that night.

Gitai’s creativity falters as the work reaches its final moments. He borrows gravitas from Shakespeare, quoting Mark Antony’s words over the body of Julius Caesar as if it were a prophecy for Israel. Antony foresees “domestic fury and fierce civil strife…Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge…shall cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war.” The show concludes with other words we know: the verses from the book of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes about “a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”

In a Director’s Note for this production Amos Gitai writes, “For me, the best tribute an artist can give his own culture is to be critical.” He’s not alone in that view, of course. But if an artist becomes critical by reflex, won’t he or she lose some originality and independence of thought? Chronicle of an Assassination rehearses a familiar view of a pivotal event. If Gitai expresses something different from his peers’ sympathy for Rabin’s aspirations and dislike for Netanyahu, that wasn’t apparent.

But perhaps Gitai is not to be blamed. In this historical moment, it’s become the norm to recycle accepted ideas—perhaps in a louder voice, in a more urgent vocabulary, or with more extreme expectations—but recycle nonetheless. We seem headed for what the poet saw a hundred years ago: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Yeats continues, “Surely some revelation is at hand.” After decades of expressing views about the arts and society that have become predictable, can our artists challenge their own assumptions and surprise us by revealing something new? It seems about time.

 

 

Royce Hall at UCLA

Israelis to teach choreography, media arts at UCLA


UCLA students will have the opportunity this spring to study with two leading Israeli artists who combine science with the movement of bodies.

Choreographer Shahar Biniamini and media artist Daniel Landau are among 14 top Israeli artists coming to major U.S. universities during the current academic year, as part of the Schusterman Visiting Israeli Artists Program.

Biniamini has danced with Batsheva — The Young Ensemble and Batsheva Dance Company during the past decade. Since leaving it in 2013, he continues to teach and produce the Batsheva repertoire around the world.

Biniamini is a teacher of the movement language Gaga, improvised dance developed by Batsheva’s artistic director Ohad Naharin that sometimes appears spastic, grotesque or even silly as a way to unlock thoughts and emotions.

Biniamini, 28, says he first became interested in dance when he was 17 years old, after seeing the Naharin-choreographed piece “Shalosh.”

“I remember the sensation I had. Not necessarily that I wanted to be a dancer, but I wanted to be part of that thing that I saw,” Biniamini said in an interview over tea at Melrose Umbrella Co.  “It came out of nowhere, and my life changed completely.”

The other visiting Israeli artist, Landau, studied music composition and new media at the Royal Conservatory in the Netherlands. His artistic installations examine the relationship between the body and technology, and he’ll work with students in the UCLA Department of Media Arts using virtual reality.

The Visiting Israeli Artists program is an initiative of the Israel Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based academic institute. The program was founded in 2008 to bring modern Israeli artists and cultural leaders to North America for residencies at cultural organizations and academic centers. Since the program began, there have been 68 residencies featuring 78 artists at colleges and universities.

“There are universities that we’re interested in bringing artists to, and sometimes that university wants to bring a specific artist or an artist in a certain field. And other times I meet an artist that has the talent and the teaching experience,” said Marge Goldwater, director of arts and cultural programs at the Israel Institute. “Sometimes I describe myself as a matchmaker.”

Soon after leaving Batsheva, Biniamini co-founded a research group, Tnuda, to explore the connection between science and movement. Composed of dancers, choreographers and scientists, it is based at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, a town south of Tel Aviv. He founded the group with Weizmann professor Atan Gross, who studies apoptosis, or programmed cell death.

“[Gross] sees a link between the process of dance, with bodies transferring information from one body to another, and it gives him inspiration for new directions in research on why cells commit suicide for the benefit of the whole unit,” Biniamini said.

As an independent dancer and artist, Biniamini choreographs new pieces for theaters and companies. In one piece, “Flat,” created for Frontier Danceland in Singapore, he covered one dancer with blue dots. In another,  “Yama,” he covered Japanese dancers with red dots.

“When I work with dancers, I like to see the body. I like to see the muscles, to see the body exposed,” he said. The idea was “to create a kind of uniform without disturbing the body.”

After working with UCLA students on an original choreographed piece this spring, he plans to work with GöteborgsOperans Danskompani in Gothenburg, Sweden; followed by a collaboration with Gauthier Dance, an ensemble in Stuttgart, Germany; and a workshop in Italy’s Tuscany region.

Biniamini has also produced videos, installations and sculptures that have been presented in theaters, museums and galleries around the world.

“It’s always a running joke between us when we talk on the phone,” Goldwater said. “I say, ‘What continent am I talking to you on?’ ”

While in Los Angeles, Biniamini will also choreograph a new piece with former Batsheva dancer and artistic director Danielle Agami and her L.A.-based ensemble, Ate9 Dance Company.

Biniamini says his goal is to found a collective of choreographers and dancers and to continue bringing innovative dance to people all over the globe.

“It’s healthy, and it can save the world,” he said.

Landau, in addition to his artistic work, led the media studies department at Beit Berl Academic College near Tel Aviv from 2012 to 2016. At 43, he is a doctoral candidate at the Aalto Institute in Finland and a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya. At UCLA, Landau will work alongside Eddo Stern, a world-renowned game designer and director of the UCLA Game Lab.

Landau’s work has been featured at international venues, museums and festivals. He is the founder of “Oh-man, Oh-machine,” an art, science and technology platform that has included a conference, a laboratory and 36-hour-long “durational workshops” in which researchers, meeting in an
airplane hangar, talk about and experience the relationship between bodies and technology.

While in California, Landau will conduct a public lecture and performance at UCLA, Caltech and Stanford called “Time-Body Study,” which he describes as a “virtual reality experiment.”

“A person from the audience is invited on stage, and not only is he placed somewhere else, as virtual reality does, he is being re-embodied,” Landau said. “He finds himself in a body of a 7-year-old, a 40-year-old and an 80-year-old.”

The project, he said, is meant to show how virtual reality may change our relationship with our own bodies and how our “physical identity can be shifted into something else.”

Another of Landau’s areas of interest is post-humanism, which he describes as “an amazing philosophical framework to reconfigure this relationship between nature, humans and computers.”

One output of that interest is a short film about Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman whose cancerous cell lines have been used by researchers for decades to develop cures for various diseases.

Another of Landau’s projects is called “One Dimensional Man,” a theatrical piece that combines projections of faces onto masks with dancers performing alongside them.

There is a political component to his work as well. Landau contends that the goal to become a more connected society has resulted in a surveillance state, with major corporations controlling the flow of information online. The “power networks” at play in social and political structures remains a major theme of his work since returning to Israel in 2006, after studying and making art in The Hague, Netherlands, for a decade.

Living abroad for that long, Landau said, allowed him “to see different horizons which you just can’t from within Israeli society.”n

Sharing lessons from his life as a ‘Wandering Israeli’


Like many Israeli soldiers, Elad Shippony traveled the world after completing his army service. What’s different about his five-year road trip and subsequent journeys is that he distilled them into a spoken-word stage show.

The result, called “The Wandering Israeli,” is coming to Sinai Temple in Los Angeles on Sept. 11. It will be performed in English at 6 p.m. and in Hebrew at 8:30 p.m.

For Shippony, it’s a homecoming of sorts. He grew up in North Hollywood and Sherman Oaks, and attended Grant High School. His desire to feel a deeper connection to Israel led him to make aliyah at 17. He joined a commando unit in the army and stayed with a family on Kibbutz Mishmar HaSharon, known as the birthplace of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. (Barak at that time was commander-in-chief of the Israel Defense Forces.)

 “I formed a feeling of love and belonging to the country,” Shippony, 46, said in a phone interview.

After Shippony’s three-year IDF service, he backpacked across Africa. He sailed down the Congo River with an army friend in a dugout canoe in search of pygmies. They were captured by Zairean soldiers and held captive in the forest but managed to be released. (You’ll have to attend the show to find out what happened.) 

Later, he bought artwork and crafts in Malawi and brought the objects back to the United States, selling them on the Venice Beach Boardwalk. He also freelanced as a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Daily News.

Shippony realized that his inability to speak Spanish kept him from being able to communicate with a large percentage of L.A.’s residents. To remedy this, he used his savings to move to South America for a year to learn Spanish. 

 “When I came back, I noticed a whole side of Los Angeles that I’d never seen before,” he said. 

When he returned to Israel, he attended Tel Aviv University with a focus on Middle Eastern studies. While in school, he also worked as a counselor for teenagers on Kibbutz Mishmar HaSharon.

Much like his decision to learn Spanish, he realized he needed to learn Arabic if he hoped to communicate with much of the country’s population. Soon after Jordan’s King Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the 1994 peace treaty between their countries, Shippony boarded a bus one morning in Afula in northern Israel, and by the afternoon he’d arrived in Amman, the capital of Jordan. 

He spent three months living in a backpacker’s hostel, not telling anyone he was Israeli — and this became the central story of “The Wandering Israeli.” 

Shippony befriended Kamil, the middle-aged Palestinian owner of the Cliff Hostel, who offered to be his language instructor and gave him an Arabicized name: Adel. When he returned to Israel with his newfound knowledge of Arabic, “I once again saw things I couldn’t see before. It added a new part to Israel I hadn’t seen,” he said.

 “I believe communication between people is the first step toward peace. Now that I could communicate, I wasn’t scared anymore. Now I could actually speak to the local community,” he said. “When you can speak Arabic, you get respect.”

Shippony got married and found work in the burgeoning high-tech industry, writing blog posts for technical and marketing websites. But it wasn’t what he wanted to do.

 “The piece that I was most proud of writing was my resignation letter,” he said with a laugh.

He built a website and taught himself to earn a living from online marketing and affiliate marketing. That’s when Shippony, who had become the father of a little girl, wrote the play “The Wandering Israeli,” partly to tap into his yearning for the open road.

 “I couldn’t travel anymore like I did before. You have a family to support. You can’t disappear for three months,” he said.

That was a decade ago. He’s since staged more than 600 Hebrew performances of the play in every corner of Israel. Onstage, Shippony slips in and out of characters, accents and languages like they are costumes. Two musicians, Sagi Eiland and Eran Edri, interweave live music to match whatever region of the world he’s talking about. 

Much of the play is humorous, with Shippony poking fun at himself and the situations he found himself in. But the underlying message is the central importance of communication.

 “It’s very non-political,” he said. “Everybody has their own idea of how to attain peace. Everybody wants to live in peace. We can perform in a religious community or in front of a mixed group of Arabs and Jews, and we’re received well everywhere.”

Twelve years after he went to Amman to learn Arabic, Shippony returned to the country with a young film student, who produced a half-hour documentary that was nominated for a prize in the Jerusalem Film Festival. In the movie, he reunites with Kamil, who tells the camera in broken English, “I hate any Israeli, OK? But when I know Adel, my ideas changed.”

Shippony has been staging an English version of his play at the historic Jaffa Theater in the Old City of Jaffa every Monday night this summer. He decided to bring the play to the U.S. to challenge people’s preconceived notions about daily life in Israel. After it’s performed in L.A., it will be staged in Palo Alto and New Jersey. 

Despite all of this, his wanderings continue. Three years ago, he decided to learn Russian, a common language in Israel, by couchsurfing in Russia for a month. 

He also hosts couchsurfers at his home in Kibbutz Magal, located near the Green Line, where he lives with his wife and three daughters. He likes to take visitors to eat hummus in neighboring Arab villages.

 “I really like to show the side of Israel you don’t see on TV,” he said. 

 

“The Wandering Israeli” will be performed at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles on Sept. 11, preceded by a show in San Diego on Sept. 10 (in English only). For more information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.

Chat rooms, seniors and modern love in ‘Romance.com’


Senior dating in the digital age is the comically rendered theme of “Romance.com,” a production of the West Coast Jewish Theatre at the Pico Playhouse in West Los Angeles. 

As the play opens, Nora (Marcia Rodd) has spent four years mourning the death of her husband and living with her granddaughter, Terry (Olivia Henry), who brings her a computer, hoping it will help Nora get more in touch with the world.  

The play, by the late Hindi Brooks, was first performed at Theatre 40 in 2002 and is now being revived by director Howard Teichman, artistic director of West Coast Jewish Theatre, who was drawn to the story by its relevance to how relationships develop today. 

“What attracted me was the way that Hindi created this, and the way the technology has developed. Back in the day, you might meet somebody at a social, or you might get invited to meet somebody through a friend. Now it’s through the computer, and so we have J-dating, we have chat rooms — people have these ways of communicating with one another, and she had the idea that even older people can do that.

“Nora’s a grandmother who loves her granddaughter, and the granddaughter is engaged to a man that Nora does not particularly like,” Teichman said. “So, she basically tries to undermine the relationship.”

From left: Olivia Henry, Michael J. Silver, Marcia Rodd, Joseph Michael Harris and Bart Braverman in “Romance.com.” Photo by Michael Lamont

Teichman described the granddaughter’s fiancé, Ira (Joseph Michael Harris), as extremely egotistical. “He’s a big body builder. He owns a gym, and he really is very self-centered, and he’s not very interested in her, other than being in love with love.  

“Eventually, she realizes that maybe she should find somebody who’s more interested in her.”

Nora’s journey begins when she decides to give the computer a try, despite her immediate disdain for it. After she comes upon a romance site, she starts an online conversation with someone who calls himself Romeo, so she starts calling herself Juliet. Under the misapprehension that she’s conversing with a young man, she pretends to be her granddaughter.

In reality, the man Nora has contacted is Benny (Bart Braverman), a former mattress salesman who is about her age and who was fired for lying down too much on the job. He connects with women on the Internet from a nearby deli and takes on the persona of a young waiter, Don (Michael J. Silver), who is an aspiring actor.

Benny’s goal, Teichman said, is to find love in a chat room, and, lacking confidence in himself, he keeps lying to women. “He says to them, ‘I like to play sports. I like to tango.’ He’s 70 years old. He can’t do any of these things, but he lies to the women to get them interested in him. And the grandmother gets online, and she starts lying, too.”

Teichman remarked that, underneath the gentle comedy, the play examines some universal issues. “I think the serious themes of the play have to do with growing old, and having to be strapped with the label that we put on older people today that they are not to be included … that they’re no longer an effective person in our society. And I also think that it talks about the sadness that people have about the loss of a loved one, and how do we re-create ourselves so we can be whole again.” 

Although the characters are written as Jewish, Teichman views their identities as more cultural than religious. The Theatre’s mission, he said, is to find plays by Jewish writers, but the plays don’t have to have specifically Jewish themes.  In fact, Teichman said he believes this show, which is currently being produced in Poland and has been playing in Germany for the past 11 years, has broad appeal.

“My goal,” he said, “will always be to bring an entertainment, an educational outlook and a view of the Jewish experience that can bridge other cultures. I think that, looking at the anti-Semitism that is going on in the world today — and it has really sprung up terribly in Europe and here in the United States — that the only way people will not have that feeling of anti-Semitism is if they understand that we are no different from anybody else. We as a people have the same wants and desires as everyone else does, and I think the more that is put out there — and I do it through the medium of theater — hopefully, people will not look at Jews and say they’re different, because we’re not.”

Romance.com” is at Pico Playhouse through Nov. 29. 

Photographing Ethiopian immigrants in Israel and L.A.


In the 1980s, when photojournalist Irene Fertik learned that Ethiopian Jews were being airlifted to Israel, she wondered how they would be treated in their new country. She’d lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a few months in 1967, right after the Six-Day War, but had never returned. She worried the Ethiopians might face discrimination and racism in Israel, as they had in other countries. 

So began Fertik’s journey of documenting the Ethiopian immigrants, a project she continues today. Many of her images from Israel are on display in the exhibition titled “Toward Freedom” at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park through Jan. 3, along with a series of photographs she made of Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles.

Fertik, 72, is now semi-retired and based in Albuquerque, N.M. She lived in Los Angeles for many years, working as a staff photographer at USC. Before that, she was a photojournalist at the Burlington Free Press in Vermont. But consistent throughout her career has been a dedication to documenting social justice activism and disenfranchised communities. From 1967 to 1977, she shot photos in New York City of Black construction workers, actors, dancers, musicians and activists. In the 1980s, she documented the Sanctuary Movement that assisted Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict.

“Operation Solomon Anniversary” (Jerusalem, 1996) Photos by Irene Fertik

But it is the immigrants from the Beta Israel communities of Ethiopia that have truly captured her attention. Most of the community’s members made aliyah in two waves of mass immigration: Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991). Currently, Israel is home to about 125,000 citizens of Ethiopian descent. The largest population lives in Beersheba, in the Negev desert of southern Israel, and another large population lives in the northern city of Haifa.

Fertik began to help raise money and awareness during the late 1980s. After the second round of airlifts, she decided to fly to Israel to see how the new residents were coping in their new and strange surroundings.

“I just wanted to see if my people would be any different than any other country in the world when it came to accepting Africans in their midst,” Fertik said in a phone interview. 

“Middle-class Africans are one thing. But [these] Ethiopians not only traveled about 800 miles, they really traveled three centuries between their simple agrarian life and the high-tech, extremely competitive, in-your-face Israel. It was so dislocating and traumatic for them.”

Fertik’s sepia-toned images show Ethiopian Jews as they build new lives in their adopted land. One striking picture taken in 1992 shows a 5-year-old girl, Shlomit Imanu, staring directly into the camera. Her family arrived in Israel as immigrants in 1984, but Shlomit is a true sabra, a native-born Israeli. Another picture taken in the same year shows two children playing in front of a tukel, or Ethiopian-style house, at an absorption center outside Acco. The structure was used for Shabbat services and as a community center, and a Star of David graces its roof. 

“Picture Perfect” (Jerusalem, 1992) 

Other images show young immigrants finding their roles in Israeli society. One shows two young Ethiopian women wearing the olive green uniforms of the Israeli Defense Forces. Another shows a young Ethiopian-Israeli soldier teaching Russian immigrants their new language — Hebrew.

There also are intimate photographs of personal milestones: a wedding, the circumcision of a baby boy and the first ballot cast in an Israeli election. Such images show the hope and promise that Israel extended to the immigrants. But there also are some that reveal tensions underlying their new reality. In one picture, taken at a demonstration outside the Knesset in Jerusalem in 2002, Ethiopians hold up photographs of relatives still in Ethiopia. They were protesting the long delay in bringing their family members to Israel. Some waited five to 10 years in compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar before being flown to Israel and reunited with family.

“When I look at her photos, it’s so beautiful, and sometimes I feel that I can see myself developing in Israel,” Shai Fredo, a celebrated Ethiopian-Israeli actor, said in a phone interview. He first met Fertik in 1999, and the two became close friends. “It’s very interesting to see someone from outside find a new way to tell my story.”

Fredo is caught in one image, from 2006, looking directly at the camera while his then-girlfriend, Etti, an accountant, looks off into the distance. Both came to Israel as children during Operation Moses and grew up there. Fredo lost his grandfather and Etti lost her mother and sister during their long journey. 

The other half of the photographs in the exhibition depict a stretch of Fairfax Avenue once occupied by Jewish businesses, but now lined mostly by Ethiopian businesses and restaurants. In 2004, then-Mayor James K. Hahn officially renamed the neighborhood “Little Ethiopia.”

These images are shot in vivid color, rather than the sepia-tones of the Israeli photos, and show people gathered for major community events such as Ethiopian New Year, Timkat (the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of Epiphany), a neighborhood cleanup event on Fairfax Avenue, a Christmas pageant and a human rights demonstration. They were taken between 2002 and 2009 and offer snapshots of a vibrant community.

“The Ethiopian community in Los Angeles is very diverse in cultural background, education, economic status, religion and political affiliation,” Negest “Nikki” Legesse, executive director of the Little Ethiopia Cultural & Resource Center, said in an email. “It is definitely a very tight-knit community as a whole. It is strong in communal lifestyle [and has a] very strong sense of identity and pride.”

Fertik’s photojournalism background comes through strongly in her images, both in her choice of subjects and the way she relates to the people — as an outsider documenting a group of outsiders. But what also comes across is her genuine affection for those she’s documenting. After all, the photos span two decades, long enough to see children grow up and have children of their own. She estimates that since 1991, she has visited Israel 16 times to photograph the Ethiopian community there.

“There’s a saying, ‘You can’t parachute in and parachute out and expect to get a good story.’ And I knew that was true,” Fertik said.

“Toward Freedom” is on display through Jan. 3 at the California African American Museum. For more information,

Brand-new labs, advanced equipment prep students for sci-tech careers


While Jewish day schools across Los Angeles have always tried to keep children and teens rooted in their ancient faith, new programs are now helping students develop the skills and creativity needed to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Over the past decade, secular and religious schools have adopted STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and STEAM (which factors in arts) curriculums, integrating these previously disparate disciplines. These initiatives — customizable for grades K-12 — are based on the premise that the future success of today’s students depends on not only what they know, but also on how they use what they know. 

Yet this type of learning requires new classroom approaches — such as hands-on, project-based learning — as well as specialized facilities and equipment, such as advanced computers and 3-D printers. To meet these needs, many schools are creating “innovation labs” on their campuses.

YULA students working on a robotics project in the new YULA Genesis Innovation Lab. Photo by John Solano

Allison Sostchen, director of general studies at Gindi Maimonides Academy, said the school’s addition of an innovation lab has “been a complete game-changer, as it adds so much value and opportunity to our activities. For example … use of a 3-D printer to demonstrate principles of design, circuitry and basic programming; and use of digital storyboarding and ‘mindmaps’ as methods for integrating writing, research, and visualization of abstract concepts.”

Jewish values, such as compassion, are often integral to projects. At YULA Boys High School in West Los Angeles, students used a 3-D printer to create a prosthetic hand. And at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, middle-schoolers created and patented a Word Ring, a scanning device for sight-impaired people that converts text to audio. 

“Sure, there was science and math going on before [STEM and our innovation lab] came to our school,” said Larry Kligman, head of school at Heschel. “Yet when we embarked on this, we realized this was beyond ‘new.’ This inspiration came from the fact that we don’t know what jobs our kids will apply for 20 years from now. What we do know is that there will be a new set of skills they are going to need to be able to secure those jobs and thrive in them.”

At Milken Community Schools’ Saperstein Middle School, the STEAM department offers elective, extracurricular and co-curricular courses in design, robotics, programming and more. Milken’s high school has had four semifinalists in the Intel Science Talent Search; 16 students with patents or provisional patents on their Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge products; and 18 Mitchell Academy of Science and Technology (MAST) students whose research at Milken has been published in scientific journals. 

Miss America 2015, Kira Kazantsev, center, visits Milken Community Schools’ MAST classroom. Photo by Roger Kassebaum

Although there is great excitement about the prospect of pushing education into the 21st century, change does not come cheap. The process of procuring investors, grants, donations and other forms of financial support has been a learning experience for leadership at the schools.

“STEM requires both instructional support, financial support and time,” said Tami Weiser, head of school at Wise School, which goes from kindergarten through sixth grade. “I have a group of teachers and administrators who meet twice a week just for that integrating step. We discuss initiatives, planning STEM events, and making sure things get carried out in the different spaces.”

It cost $300,000 to develop Wise’s new innovation lab, which was made possible by a donation from the Tyberg family and is used by all the academic disciplines. The Moradi family donated $50,000 that went toward remodeling the science lab, and this academic year, the school also added a project studio, which integrates STEM with social studies and further bolsters the science program’s engineering component. 

At YULA, parents and lay leaders Sherri and Arnold Schlesinger approached the school about unifying existing STEM efforts into the Genesis Academy for Innovation, said Richard St. Laurent, general studies principal. Genesis provides STEM education for students at all levels, including those at YULA Girls High School, St. Laurent said. The centerpiece of Genesis is the innovation lab, a hub for a variety of programs.

YULA students working on engineering projects. Photo by John Solano  

YULA teacher Ian Arenas oversees Genesis, which opened in its current form this academic year, and he described some of the ways lab activities are enriching students’ education. 

“For example, a 3-D printer can be used to re-create Hellenistic architecture to document and preserve information. … Genesis Academy partners with corporations and organizations such as [after-school program] LA’s Best, the LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) schools and the national Veterans Affairs office through a teaching and mentorship program, using the mobile science/innovation lab,” he said.

At Wise School, science teachers Alexandra Coatney and Mandy Bolkin are excited about how their initiatives came to life this year.

“Students are taking what they learn home with them,” Bolkin said. “They are loving our in-class projects and are taking advantage of opportunities to get more involved with their community, such as participating in Coastal Cleanup Day.” 

Seeing kids and teens in these labs, engaged in creation and invention, provides a palpable sense of how these investments are already paying off.

At Heschel, the newly remodeled Robotics Club space was packed with kids brushing up on their programming skills or preparing their entries for the upcoming First Lego League competition, where thousands of teams from around the world will be tasked with building robots that perform a particular job. This year’s competition focuses on trash and recycling. 

YULA students Eitan Tennenbaum, 17, and Benjamin Goldstein, 15, talked about the impact that their STEM education has had on them.

“The school already has computers we use every single day, [but] having a lab where you can express yourself with [things such as] 3-D printers and the Oculus Rift [a virtual reality device] really enhances the experience,” Eitan said.

“Learning how to use technology now … can help you when you’re finished with school to get a job,” Benjamin said. “It also teaches creativity and how to use your brain, and in the end, will help you succeed in anything. 

“[I’ve learned] that you can build anything with anything, and that your mind opens up when you walk into this room.” 

Yehuda Gilad teaches the importance of strong minds, muscles and funny bones


Ever since Mozart discovered the clarinet’s versatility and tonal beauty in the 1760s, the instrument has grown in stature, relying on distinguished teachers to keep its wide range of joyous, jazzy, autumnal and rapturous moods thriving. And there’s no better caretaker of the instrument’s legacy than Yehuda Gilad, whose studio at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in downtown Los Angeles is a go-to venue for aspiring professional clarinetists everywhere.

Gilad, who took up the clarinet late (he was already 16) on a kibbutz near Caesarea, Israel, a town midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, discovered he owned an extraordinary gift, or as he put it recently during an interview from the International Clarinet Association’s ClarinetFest 2015 in Madrid, “I was a little bit talented, and very quickly began to do good things.”

Gilad’s comments about his thriving conducting career are equally understated. “I got into conducting by chance,” he said, adding he saw the job as an opportunity to become the “total musician.” 

Gilad will conduct the Colburn Orchestra, the conservatory’s flagship ensemble, at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge on Sept. 27 in a program including Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, “Emperor,” with new Colburn faculty member Fabio Bidini as soloist, and Brahms’ sweetly melancholic Symphony No. 2 in D major. 

Before that, on Sept. 12, Gilad will lead the first Colburn Chamber Music Society concert at the school’s Zipper Hall, featuring Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 for winds in B-flat major, “Gran Partita.” Listeners may recall the adagio from this score in the acclaimed 1984 film “Amadeus,” in which rival Salieri rhapsodized how Mozart’s use of a clarinet filled him with delight and “such longing, such unfulfillable longing.”

Gilad’s musical life began with a recorder. “It was all we could afford,” he said. His father escaped pogroms in Russia in 1925 and his mother fled Germany in 1936; they met on the kibbutz. “They were pioneers who had three kids. I’m the youngest.” 

Gilad said he was virtually penniless after his army service, but that didn’t deter him from moving on. “When you’re at zero,” Gilad explained, “everything you get or achieve is a plus.”

After moving to London and then, in 1975, to Los Angeles, Gilad met the composer, conductor and arts activist Herbert Zipper, whom he called “my teacher, my rabbi, my mentor.” Zipper encouraged Gilad’s conducting career, which began with a six-year stint as music director of the Santa Monica Symphony. Later, as conductor of the Colonial Symphony of New Jersey, Gilad combined conducting and teaching, winning awards for innovative school programs that made music more accessible to students.

Gilad also said he learned from attending classes by conducting masters such as Sergiu Celibidache. “He was a difficult personality,” Gilad said, “but an unbelievable musician. He taught the long line, the inner lines of music that keep the ship moving.”

As music director of the conservatory’s Colburn Orchestra since its inception in 2003, Gilad said he sees between 30 and 50 new faces every September. “This is a big challenge for any conductor, when almost one-half of the orchestra graduates each year,” Gilad said. “Suddenly we have 17-year-olds performing with 23-year-olds. You have to find ways to make them singing musicians, professional musicians.”

Although Gilad still occasionally performs, his work and reputation as a clarinet teacher have taken center stage, with some 100 of his pupils at USC’s Thornton School of Music and the Colburn Conservatory over the years earning positions in major international orchestras. 

For Gilad, the recipe for making a good musician includes three things. The first is physical. “To be a great musician, you must train and educate your muscles and fingers, bones and body,” Gilad said. “You have to take care of your machine.”

The second component is developing a philosophy of music and the world, without which, he said, a musician would just be a shell. “This is the depth of my teaching,” Gilad said. “The ‘why’ is the most important. The ‘how’ comes later. It’s about understanding what a work can say and how you can say it.” To perform Stravinsky, for example, one should understand Russian culture and literature in order to discover “your part in it, what you bring to it,” Gilad said.

The third ingredient is a sense of humor. For Gilad, this allows a soloist to “take the ego away, so the music will come through you. This applies to an orchestra as well.”

For clarinetist Signe Sõmer, 24, who started working with him at the Colburn Conservatory in the fall of last year, Gilad is “a living legend.” 

“I really like that he is trying to describe a certain atmosphere behind a piece,” she said, adding that while working last year on Sibelius’ Second Symphony, “he managed to describe everything … the people, scenery, the darkness and even the sound of the Finnish language.”

Gilad said when a student is learning a piece, he forbids them to listen to anyone else’s version. “If you are learning Debussy’s Rhapsody for Clarinet and Piano,” he said, “I would have you listen to the composer’s String Quartet, ‘Jeux’ [and] ‘Afternoon of a Faun.’ Then the music will come to you. If [you listen to] other artists, you start to copy and lose your own special colors.”

But Gilad doesn’t neglect strictly technical matters. “We have been working on embouchure [the use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece], air, and last year I changed my tonguing technique,” Sõmer said.

Sõmer is scheduled to perform Max Bruch’s Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra with the Colburn Orchestra at the Ambassador Auditorium on Feb. 6.

Todd Cope, 30, another former student of Gilad’s who is now principal clarinet of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, recalled his teacher’s three ingredients of a good musician, especially the part about having a sense of humor. 

“You have to be able to step back,” Cope said. “Sometimes we take everything so seriously. We’re all guilty of it. … Gilad teaches us that everything’s going to be OK.”

Cope said Gilad encouraged him to compete in international competitions, and “put myself out there.” The level of preparation required, Cope said, paved the way for successful auditions, leading to his present position in Montreal. Cope added that he still goes to see Gilad once or twice a year to play for him. “Once you’re a Gilad student, you’re a student for life,” Cope said.

Gilad seems firmly entrenched in L.A. He is married to Kimaree Gilad, an oboist who played with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for 30 years, and they have three grown children. 

Yet Gilad is often on the road teaching, performing and conducting. People marvel at his energy. “It doesn’t matter if a student plays for him at the beginning or at the end of the day,” Sõmer said. 

“I hate the travel,” Gilad offered, “but I love the stuff I’m doing. Making a difference in people’s lives is rewarding and enriching. It recharges my  batteries.”

Yehuda Gilad and the Colburn Orchestra will perform a free community concert at 3 p.m. on Sept. 27 at the Valley Performing Arts Center, located at 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. For more information, call (818) 677-8800 or visit

Every piece of music tells a story


An intellectual pianist in the best sense, Jonathan Biss has a probing and poetic musical mind wedded to a playful, spontaneous temperament. Biss, 34, is also a musician who craves performing in public. So much so that even though he wisely canceled a concert in April with the New York Philharmonic — during which he was scheduled to play Brahms' mammoth D-minor concerto — after he slipped and broke his left arm, he kept two concert dates less than a month later with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

At the second concert I attended, Biss gave an exquisite, classically balanced account of Mozart’s complex Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major. Remarkably, Biss then offered a generous encore, “Abschied” (“Farewell”) from Schumann’s “Waldszenen” (“Forest Scenes”) — a memorably touching performance, reinforcing his reputation as the foremost Schumann interpreter of his generation.

“I’m just counting my blessings,” Biss said by phone from the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. “I was incredibly lucky with the injury not ending up being all that bad, and then having fantastic medical care. It’s been six weeks since I’ve felt as much as a twinge.”

Such luck bodes well, because Biss is scheduled to give a recital of works by Mozart, Schoenberg and Schumann at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Oct. 16. 

Biss grew up in a Jewish musical family in Bloomington, Ind., where his parents — mother, Miriam Fried, a Romanian-born Israeli violinist, and father, Paul Biss, a violinist and conductor — were professors at Indiana University. Biss’ paternal grandmother was Russian cellist Raya Garbousova, whose playing was reportedly admired by Pablo Casals. His maternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors.

“I’m not remotely observant,” Biss said of his heritage. “If I was forced to pick between musician and Jewish as adjectives to describe myself, I would obviously say musician. But in ways that are so basic — I can’t even put them in words — I am a Jewish person. It’s just part of my cultural being. It’s clearly who I am.”

Coming out of an immersive family musical environment, it’s not surprising Biss sees an intimate connection between music and language, a link he said he’s been thinking about even more now that he is on the piano faculty at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, his alma mater.

“Any piece of music worth listening to, there’s a narrative and grammar,” Biss said. “The intonation of the musical sentence reflects that — pausing for emphasis, moving ahead for emphasis. And you have to articulate for emphasis. Without thinking about it, we all inflect phrases, and that’s a huge part of music making.”

If ever a piece of music tests an interpreter’s ability to keep the story focused and emotionally coherent, it’s Schumann’s mercurial “Kreisleriana” (1838), which Biss will perform during the second half of his Broad Stage program. A set of eight untitled fantasies, “Kreisleriana” is just the kind of challenge Biss revels in, from its tumultuous in medias res beginning to its disarming intimacy, childlike innocence and spellbinding mystery.

“When people say that Schumann’s music is poetic, it’s a way of saying that it’s music where how he says something is as important, or more important, than what he says,” Biss said. “I’m not saying there isn’t any of that in Beethoven, but Beethoven is so relentlessly concerned with taking you from place to place, he doesn’t leave himself space to find these nooks and crannies, where in Schumann, the nooks and crannies are so often the best part.”

For Biss, the interpreter’s most important job is to make listeners understand there is a reason why one event follows another. “Sometimes the sequence is strange, seemingly irrational on the surface,” Biss said, “but even irrationality has a reason.”

Biss said he also thinks a lot about the sequence of works in his recital programs. For the first half of his Broad Stage recital, he’s programmed Mozart’s Sonata No. 14 in C minor, K. 457 and Sonata No. 15 in F major, K. 533/494 with Schoenberg’s “Six Little Piano Pieces” in between.

“The way one hears music is hugely affected by context,” Biss said. “The quality that binds these three very different composers is that they are all mercurial. Mozart writes temperamental music, which comes from him being, in essence, a theatrical or opera composer. The characters change their mood frequently. He can go from tempestuous to nostalgic, sometimes with finger-snapping speed. If anyone else did it, it would seem stage-managed.”

For Biss, the link to Schumann in the program’s second half is clear. “Schumann may have worshipped Beethoven, but temperamentally he was much closer to Mozart,” Biss said. “And with Schoenberg, there’s this unrelenting intensity, but his ‘Six Little Pieces’ are so tiny and evanescent, with the distillation of an idea — a feeling comes and almost before you know it, it’s gone.”

Although he’s currently midway through the process of recording Beethoven’s complete cycle of 32 piano sonatas, a project Biss said may take him until he’s 40, the pianist still finds time to perform new music. In April 2014, he premiered Bernard Rands’ Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with the Boston Symphony, and his latest endeavor, “Beethoven/5,” involves the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which commissioned five composers — Timo Andres, Sally Beamish, Salvatore Sciarrino, Caroline Shaw and Brett Dean — to write new piano concertos for Biss, each inspired by one of Beethoven’s five piano concertos.  

Andres recently sent Biss the first movement of his score, which takes off from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It will be paired with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra program in November.  

“The idea was to take as wide a range of composers to demonstrate that whoever you are or whatever your compositional style, you’re going to have something to say about Beethoven,” Biss said. “That’s just the nature of Beethoven’s music and his place in the musical world.” 

Meanwhile, Biss is busy teaching, recording, adding to his popular online music course “Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas” (three more lectures were appended to the site in May) and working on Andres’ partial score while awaiting the rest with “a mix of elation, terror and confusion.” 

“One of my great failings as a musician is that I don’t compose,” Biss said. “I don’t have any ability in that direction. I feel I would understand something more of the process if I did. I hear these great works — a Beethoven string quartet or ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ — and I always think, ‘What was the first idea that led to this?’ And it’s not a question I can begin to answer.”

Biss said that’s one reason he’s so proud of the “Beethoven/5” project. “My greatest hope is that the pieces have a life beyond me,” Biss said. “Playing new music — working on music that has no performance history — forces me to think in a different way about how the creation process happened.”

For now, Biss said he’s looking forward to his Broad Stage recital. “There’s something about my need to share with other people, and I really mean need. It’s wonderful to play privately in a room and feel free and uninhibited, but something happens when you actually connect to an audience, which can be total magic.”

Jonathan Biss plays Mozart, Schoenberg and Schumann at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16. For more information, call  (310) 434-3200 or visit ” target=”_blank”>dstage.com

JWT’s ‘Not That Jewish’ offers the group’s latest fresh, female voice


“Not That Jewish,” an autobiographical one-woman show with comedian Monica Piper, recalls Billy Crystal’s similarly heartfelt “700 Sundays.” Both are monologue performances by Jewish comics who grew up in show-biz-oriented families in Brooklyn, where weekends were spent at the ballpark watching Mickey Mantle. Both deal with the death of a parent, and both blend the funny with the moving, the intimate with the broad. 

Piper’s “Not That Jewish,” directed by Eve Brandstein, was commissioned by the Los Angeles-based Jewish Women’s Theater (JWT) and is running at the organization’s recently acquired 1,500-square-foot theater space, The Braid, in Santa Monica. The show is the synthesis of several short pieces Piper has been performing over the past several years at JWT salons, performances that take place in homes all over L.A. 

The show, which is 80 minutes long, will now run until Dec. 21, having been extended a week from popular demand. Ronda Spinak, artistic director at JWT and producer of the show, said “Not That Jewish” deserved a feature-length production because of the strength of the material. The title draws on Piper’s reservations about performing a show centered on her Jewish background: During a phone interview, Spinak recalled a conversation she had with Piper in which Spinak suggested that Piper turn her short pieces into a full-length show. 

“I said, ‘We need to turn your stories into a one-woman show,’ and she said, ‘I’m really not that Jewish.’ I said, ‘That’s the title! Because the fact is, though you don’t consider yourself that Jewish, you are a cultural Jew, and your pieces have a very cultural sensibility.’ ”

The work spans Piper’s life, from her Yiddish-inflected childhood to her turbulent adult years, describing two failed marriages, one to a great-looking gentile who calls her a “Jewish American princess” and one to a musician who winds up having a drug problem.

The show also delves into Piper’s life after her marriages: her career in stand-up and comedy writing — and winning an Emmy as the head writer of the animated television series “Rugrats.”

Piper also recounts her decision to adopt a child as well as her father’s death from Alzheimer’s.

The no-frills stage contains only a couple of pieces of furniture, a bookshelf and a chair. Occasionally, projected onto the blank wall behind the performer are key words describing the themes of the show, which serve to divide the play into neat sections.

The piece is often irreverent. In one scene, the adult Piper attends the anniversary party of an aunt and uncle at a hotel in New York City and meets Mickey Mantle, her childhood hero and crush, who propositions her for the evening. Before she gives him an answer, she runs back over to her father, who has been watching the scene unfold from his table nearby, to tell him about the conversation. 

“F— Mickey Mantle,” her father says, after hearing about the Mick’s offer. 

“F— Mickey Mantle? Or f— Mickey Mantle?” Piper asks her dad.

“Not That Jewish” is the latest in a string of JWT shows that offer fresh takes of Jewish women. Previous material has explored the lives of Persian women, including Jewish Journal columnist Gina Nahai, in a piece titled “Saffron and Rosewater.” An upcoming show will team members of the Los Angeles Russian-Jewish community with JWT.

“We’re Jewish Women’s Theater, and it’s really important we show the spectrum of Jewish women, and Jews in particular, so from all different cultures, all different age ranges, all different denominations,” Spinak said. “These are human stories. What I don’t cast and what I don’t do is the cliché. When you talk to me about content that isn’t right for our crowd, I’m not going to tell the old joke about the Jewish mom.”

JWT recently began its seventh salon season, and although the organization now has its own event space — Piper’s show is the inaugural performance — the group will continue to stage salons in homes, Spinak told the Journal. 

Spinak expressed excitement about the group’s latest show, as well as its writer and performer. 

“She’s a brilliant writer and a brilliant performer, and I feel so amazingly blessed to have been working with her,” Spinak said.

JWT is a nonprofit project that has fiscal sponsorship from Community Partners. Philanthropist Gail Solo provided a key grant for the commissioning of “Not That Jewish,” which is JWT’s inaugural commissioned work.

Fusing ritual and theater


In Encino, seven actors move across the scuffed hardwood floor of a gymnasium. It’s after 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and this is only the third rehearsal for the play “Tefillah or Prayer: A Transition.”

Paul Vroom, a middle-aged actor sporting camouflage shorts and a goatee, plays a Jewish prisoner in the Terezin work camp waiting to be taken to Auschwitz. He addresses the other six actors, who are tightly huddled together. “How do we close the distance between here and there, between this place and life?” he wonders aloud.

The play’s writer and director, Aaron Henne, is also the artistic director of Theatre Dybbuk, an experimental theater group that also partnered with Valley Beth Shalom a year ago on the work “Vessels,” about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Henne repositions the actors, paying attention to their body language as much as to the lines they deliver. In one scene, they hold memorial candles, slowly waving them in front of their faces and across their chests, tracing the contours of their bodies. “Blessed are you who made me,” the actors repeat. 

The flickering light illuminates them, yet the movements seem disconnected. It suggests that they haven’t internalized the meaning of their prayers, thanking God for creating their bodies. Their actions and speech are at odds with one another, creating a powerful sense of tension.

“Pay attention to your physical actions,” Henne tells the actors. “That’s what’s going to make this a journey the audience will want to go on.”

A previous Theatre Dybbuk performance, “Cave … A Dance for Lilith,” was co-produced with the L.A. Contemporary Dance Company in 2012. “I’m a huge believer in the vocabulary of movement,” Henne said. “It’s a vocabulary as much as language is, and it communicates as much as language does.”

Theatre Dybbuk performs new works that are deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, myth and history. It draws its name from a demon that, according to Jewish folklore, possesses the body of a living person and takes control of that person’s behavior, a reference, perhaps, to how a character takes over the body of an actor.

Not all of the company is Jewish, however, including Julie Lockhart, who sees her involvement in the play as an opportunity to explore a faith outside her own. “As an actor, I have to investigate the role that I’m playing. Just like if I were a character in a Chekhov play,” she said.

Henne has worked with many of the actors on previous productions. A longtime member of the Los Angeles theater scene, he chooses his cast based on his familiarity with their work, not on whether they’re Jewish. “I’m not generally asking the question about their culture, religious heritage, background or spiritual beliefs,” Henne said. “I’m asking the question, are they the right performer and collaborator for the role?”

But the idea of using non-Jewish actors in a very Jewish-themed production gets to the heart of Theatre Dybbuk, Henne said. The mission of the group is to “illuminate the universal experience.” It’s theater from a Jewish perspective, but it is meant for everyone. The play will be performed in various sacred spaces, including synagogues in the San Fernando Valley and West Hollywood, as well as at The Pico Union Project (an interfaith cultural center) and an Episcopal church in San Gabriel.

The play combines prayer with poetry from various periods of history. Onstage, Lockhart looks at a candle in her hand as she recites this verse by Yiddish poet Peretz Markish, translated by Aaron Kramer:

From the Bug River, a ferocious blizzard blows,

wiping out every footstep with its lashing snows;

but on menorahs in the shuls of Bialystock,

like worn-out fiddles, they have hung their exile up.

Woven between the actor’s lines are passages from various prayer services, recited by Seth Ettinger, a student cantor at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. “More people need to go ahead and explore how to bring theater into the service,” Ettinger said. “It’s not novel for Judaism. In biblical times, animal sacrifice was accompanied by a Levitical choir, and a massive band and orchestral arrangements. The Levites had five years of intense training to sing and play instruments perfectly.”

Theatre Dybbuk’s development process is unique. Henne casts the actors before he writes a script. He then meets with the actors, designers, a dramaturg or script consultant, scholars and clergy several times over the course of six months to a year. Each time, he brings more pages of the script and rewrites throughout the process. “These meetings make a huge difference,” Henne said. “They really do affect the shape of the piece.”

During rehearsals, scenes are rewritten and entire sections moved or dropped as needed. The actors treat the script as a living thing that can be altered and improved. “We all offer our ideas and input,” Vroom said. “You’re expected to bring something to the table.”

One of the script consultants is Andrea Hodos, a dancer and performance artist who also works with Jewish subject matter. “[Henne] was honestly interested in people’s responses to the work, with very little ego,” she said. “I was very impressed with his ability to take it in, synthesize it, and trust the people in the room.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom’s senior rabbi, has worked with Henne for about a year on this production. He said he wants artists to be in dialogue with the synagogue, to offer up their wisdom while also gaining something from examining Jewish traditions. 

“It seems to me that the Jewish community long ago tossed the artists out, and for that reason, we really lost our aesthetic. And I think it’s time to bring them home,” Feinstein said.

One of Henne’s challenges in this production was building a narrative out of a daily prayer service, which lacks the structure of a holiday service, such as a Passover seder. A typical prayer service is episodic, with each individual prayer disconnected from the others, Feinstein said, yet each prayer tells its own story.

One example is the Amidah, the silent devotional prayer. “The structure of the prayer represents the journey of the pilgrim in ancient times, from the countryside, say, to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem to the Holy Temple, and then from the Holy Temple into the inner core of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. Which parallels the journey of the pilgrim from the extremities and peripheries of life into the core of who we are,” Feinstein said. “There are literary cues in the text of the prayer book which suggest narratives that most people don’t know about.”

Henne said he’s fascinated by the intersection of theater and ritual, and the theatricality of prayer. “I begin with the idea that the siddur [prayer book], and the prayer itself, is a container for history,” Henne said, “that these prayers are our way of connecting to the past, quite literally. So that every time we sit down in a synagogue to pray, we are time traveling. We’re communing with our heritage and who we are.”

Ultimately, he wants the audience to see prayer and theater as similar — both efforts to transcend our individual selves and connect with those around us and the world at large. 

“This thing we call prayer is a universal experience of looking to reach beyond ourselves,” Henne said, adding that the same is true of theater. “We’re gathering together as a community to experience something for a reason. Let’s find out what that reason is.”

“Tefillah or Prayer: A Translation” will be performed June 22 at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, June 29 at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, July 6 at The Church of Our Saviour in San Gabriel, and July 12-13 at The Pico Union Project in Los Angeles. For more information, visit theatredybbuk.org.

Jewish art culture: Movin’ on up to the East side


A crowd of people has gathered inside a shipping container set in a parking lot in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles. Ambient lights blink on and off, and musicians play droning sounds, while a video art installation of traffic at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro plays on iPads built into wooden shipping crates.

This is the second iteration of Culture Lab, a project of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (SIJCC) to bring artists — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — to examine a specific topic through a Jewish lens.

The inaugural event, held in February, focused on an oil theme. The interactive installation was created by a group of four artists working in sculpture, graphic design, video and mixed media. The second event’s theme is disguise, and the artists took a far less literal approach to the subject.

All of the artists were nominated to become part of the project, and then were thrown together for four months with the challenge of coming up with collaborative approaches to represent a theme. The artists work in different formats and disciplines, and represent a range of age, gender, academic and religious backgrounds. A Jewish scholar is also assigned to help the group answer historical and theological questions.

One of the themes that emerged in their discussions was the symbolism of the number 7, tied to the seven species of fruits and grains named in the Bible: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. One of the artists, Raphael Arar, shot video footage of grapes and then digitally altered it into a looping stream that was projected inside the shipping container.

“Symbols are a form of disguise,” Arar said. “One of the phrases we stumbled across is ‘communication is labyrinth.’ In something as basic as communication theory, you have a transmitter and a receiver, and the signal goes through. Sometimes the signal is disguised. [If] you’re talking to me, you put on a different face than if you were talking to your mom, or your best friend, or a dog.” 

The music, performed by Arar, bassist Brian Griffith and installation artist Helen Lessick, also fits into this mode of thought. While Arar and Griffith looped synthesizer and bass guitar sounds through effects pedals, Lessick waved her hands in front of sensors attached to the walls of the container. The sensors, triggered by movement, were connected to faders that adjusted the musical transmission. As a result, the container itself became a musical instrument, while audience members also became collaborators in the sonic output.

Griffith is also an animation and Web artist, and he contributed another video projection of psychedelic looping images of the biblical seven species. Lessick represented the theme more literally, filming a series of masks left over from a New Year’s Eve party on the Queen Mary ocean liner-turned-hotel in Long Beach. She embedded her video player inside wooden crates, which were left over from the previous Culture Lab exhibit.

Yelena Zhelezov, chair of the West Hollywood Commission of Arts and Cultural Affairs, created a portrait by morphing the five faces of the artists together. Instead of a line drawing, the image consisted of lines made from transcribed quotes taken from the artists’ meetings, a take on the traditional art of micrography. The artists’ efforts at communication and collaboration became, literally, the contours of their portrait, their conversations defining the physical dimensions of their faces and merging them into a single identity.

Through its connection to capitalism and trade, the shipping container, too, fit into the general theme of the show. “The container is essentially a disguise for objects,” Zhelezov said, “and that’s part of a global exchange of goods.”

Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal covered a canvas with quotes about Jews’ relationship to capitalism, both as a people pushed into money-lending by Christian authorities and as proponents of radical philosophies that undermine capitalism. The quotes are written out in waving lines that correspond to a map of global shipping trade routes. “Capitalism’s entire ethos is bent on disguising the modes of production,” Rosenthal said. “That’s [Karl] Marx’s most famous insight.”

The painting begins with a quote from Deuteronomy, regulating the practice of lending with interest: “Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury.” Another passage ties Stanley Fischer, former chief economist at the World Bank, to former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and to Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute. “While there’s a very taboo relationship between Jews and capitalism,” Rosenthal said, “there’s also this very real relationship.” 

One purpose of Culture Lab is to connect the Jewish community with the many artists living in Silver Lake, according to Dan Friedman, program director at the SIJCC. “Geographically, where we’re located represents a pretty packed creative class. We’re representing Jews but also a geographic area.”

But the organizers also see Culture Lab as a way to help Jewish artists and their work gain more prominence. “Jewish art needs a more active voice defining it, moving forward,” Friedman said. “It has an antiquated idea of what that is, and I think there’s a real vibrant community of artists from Jewish backgrounds who are exploring what their voices are. And to provide a platform for that conversation is really important to us in our role as an arts and cultural center.”

Sharing his love of Judaism through Jubilation’s music


When singer-songwriter Bill Burnett converted to Judaism in the early 2000s, he resolved to teach others about his new religion through the power of music, and over the years he’s put together a wide repertoire of songs that speak to children and adults about the Torah and its traditions.

More recently, he and his wife, Debrah Lemattre, created the Jubilation Musical Society, which performed a Lag b’Omer concert on May 18 showcasing such songs. There were excerpts from their original musicals, along with tunes about Shabbat and the holidays. 

“I think that Judaism is cool and deep and meaningful and that a lot of people don’t know a lot of things about it,” Burnett said. “I’m trying to make it fun.”

Burnett, an Emmy and Clio winner who also goes by the Hebrew name Yuval, has written music for the likes of Nickelodeon and Bette Midler and worked as a story editor, creative director and television show creator. 

At the performance, which was held at Shout! Factory warehouse in West Los Angeles, Burnett led the songs with the help of director Andy Wolf. There were solos and group numbers — some featuring as many as 10 singers — that were a mix of bluesy, rock and R&B-inspired tunes, backed by drummers, guitarists and a bassist. 

The singers varied in age and background: Some were Jewish, others not. There were adults and teenagers — all singing with gusto. 

Although none of the songs was specifically about Lag b’Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, leading up to Shavuot, they did touch upon other holidays, such as Purim, Chanukah, Passover and Sukkot. 

Bradley Bobbs, who has seen the group perform more than once, said he is always taken aback when he attends a concert. 

“I’m so impressed by the shows. They take history and culture and heritage and make it entertaining. You retain it,” he said.

Rhiannon Lewis, who first auditioned to perform with the Jubilation Musical Society when she was in elementary school, sang “Esther’s Destiny,” a tune from the Purim musical of the same name that Burnett composed. Her mother, Lisa, said that the songs are “very creative and a way to bring more excitement to whatever holiday they’re about.”

The group also performed pieces from “The Young Maccabees,” a fictional tale based on events from the Chanukah story that premiered last year at the Skirball Cultural Center. 

The entire cast stepped onto the stage to sing a selection from “Mem,” Burnett’s Passover musical that retells the story as if it were a setup against the Egyptians all along, starting from Moses’ journey down the Nile River. 

“The storytelling brings it alive in a way that nothing else can,” said Lemattre, who also is the Jubilation Musical Society’s CEO. “The songs stick in your head, so you never forget them, and they put a memorable tilt on everything.”

Lemattre said that when people learn about Judaism, they don’t always understand it. Through music, they have the chance to connect to it and know what’s going on. 

“People aren’t really understanding what they’re reading. This makes it super fresh. You’re there with it, as opposed to it being a million years ago and a million miles away.”

Wolf said the shows are for every Jew. There is no threshold or requirement: “It reaches every age, and it doesn’t matter at what level you are in terms of your Jewish education.”

For now, the Jubilation Musical Society is a side project for Burnett and Lemattre, who run a production company that does marketing and branding for nonprofits. They hope Jubilation will become a full-time gig, becoming a 501(c)3 nonprofit that takes their musicals and songs to English-speaking cities and countries around the world. 

Monica Horan, activist artist


In her first scene in the ensemble play “Different Words for the Same Thing,” actress Monica Horan sits at a table in a doughnut shop, talking to another character. After finishing her doughnut, she reaches across the table, snatches up her companion’s confection, and quietly chews it as the audience bursts into laughter.

It’s that kind of comic timing that got Horan cast in the show, which plays through June 1 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Of course, it helped that she’s also an accomplished actress, best known for playing Amy MacDougall Barone on the hit sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Horan’s husband, Philip Rosenthal, was also the show’s creator and executive producer. 

“Monica is warm and genuine, and damn funny all the time,” said Neel Keller, director of “Different Words.” “Having her in the room during rehearsals, there was a sense of lightness.”

Horan got her start as a stage actress, graduating with a degree in theater performance from Hofstra University and then moving to Manhattan to perform in off-off Broadway shows. She’s kept her acting chops alive in some very small venues here in Los Angeles since “Raymond” finished its run in 2005, but for her return to the professional stage, she said, she wanted to find a play that matched her values.

“I wanted to do work that elevated,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s cheap funny. It’s dirty funny. It’s degrading funny. I always used to joke that I’m the Tipper Gore of television,” she said, laughing. When she found out about “Different Words for the Same Thing,” by young playwright Kimber Lee, she knew she wanted to be involved. The play is set in the small town of Nampa, Idaho, and revolves around a family torn apart by the death of a daughter. After a long absence, the family’s other daughter comes back from Chicago to try to reconnect the three generations of her multiethnic middle-class family.

Horan plays Dottie, an Evangelical Christian and town gossip. “It was great to get inside the head of a fundamentalist person,” Horan said. But she acknowledged that getting comfortable with the role wasn’t easy. In the play, Dottie tries to dissuade a young white girl from dating a Latino teen “from the wrong side of the tracks,” and she refers to Asian-Americans as “Orientals.” But Horan wasn’t turned off by her character’s backwardness.

“What’s at the core of it, though, is a love for other people. So all these terrible things she says, what she’s really saying is, ‘I really care about you, and this is the way I think it is.’ It’s just” — Horan paused and  laughed — “different words for the same thing.” 

The way people express their beliefs has long been a subject of fascination for Horan. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she worked with USC’s Center for Religion & Civic Culture to coordinate meetings with Muslims and other members of the faith community. She even played an Amish woman in a guest appearance on the TV series “Hot in Cleveland.”

Horan was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism when she and Rosenthal married in 1990. “His grandmother did not want to meet me, because I was not Jewish,” she said. As it turned out, when Horan was 13, her grandfather died — and that’s when she learned he wasn’t her biological grandfather. She discovered that her mother’s real father was Jewish. Now, Horan serves on the board of her synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, as well as on its arts council. 

When she isn’t acting on TV or onstage, she’s an active philanthropist, advocating for public school theater and arts programs. “It’s a civil rights issue,” she said about dwindling budgets for arts education. “We’re trying to create a pipeline to college, as opposed to a pipeline to prison.”

“Children stay in school, and perform better, when arts is part of the curriculum,” Horan said. “All of us here in Los Angeles, because we’ve had some success as a result of our life in the arts, need to get on board with helping L.A. Unified, the public school system, really reach the mandate to make arts part of the Common Core curriculum.”

To that end, Horan is an executive board member for Inner-City Arts in downtown Los Angeles, and the nonprofit’s state-of-the-art Rosenthal Theater bears her family’s name. The organization, which provides arts education to elementary-, middle- and high-school students, has a $4 million annual budget, and educates thousands of students and teachers in drama, ceramics, animation and other art forms.

“She’s absolutely committed to education reform, and how arts can be a part of that,” said Bob Smiland, president and CEO of Inner-City Arts. He said Horan often drops by to lend a hand during workshops and training sessions. “She serves a valuable role as a board member but is equally valuable as a volunteer.”

Horan and her husband also founded The Flourish Foundation, which funds theater, dance and music workshops for Los Angeles youth. The nonprofit has given out about $500,000 in the past five years for teacher residencies, student scholarships and classroom grants to help integrate arts into classrooms.

“Monica and I were the first in our families to go to college,” said Kevin Kane, executive director of The Flourish Foundation. The two met as teenagers, in a ninth-grade production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Philadelphia. “We understand the obstacles and challenges facing these first-generation kids,” Kane said. “We know what that path is like. And now we have the privilege of seeing them develop into amazing teachers and artists and citizens, knowing that we’re making a difference.”

Horan also offers support via the Rosenthal Family Foundation, which issues grants for arts education and projects such as City Year, an AmeriCorps service program, and Food Forward, a fruit distribution program. The foundation also created a two-year, grant-funded arts education reporter position at Los Angeles public radio station KPCC-FM and helps fund a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., to advocate for federal funding of arts education. It also supports the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. 

Horan and Rosenthal also are major supporters of Democratic political candidates. They’ve hosted fundraisers for Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. In January, the couple hosted first lady Michelle Obama for a $1,000-per-ticket backyard reception at their Hancock Park home. Later, at the $32,400-per-person discussion in their home theater, the first lady talked about the upcoming midterm elections. The event raised nearly $700,000 for the Democratic National Committee. 

“She’s a very real, impassioned, practical person,” Horan said of Obama. “The politicians, it’s important for them to have these living-room events, because they can hear what people care about, one-on-one.” The day of the fundraiser, the first lady tweeted that arts education is “linked to better grades, test scores, motivation & social skills.”

Horan said Obama recently invited her to the White House to attend an upcoming arts event, but she regretfully had to decline. “I have a performance that day,” Horan said with a laugh.

“Different Words for the Same Thing” is at the Kirk Douglas through June 1. 

Ballroom peace


The long history of Jewish-Arab animosity is a hard thing to change, but that didn’t stop ballroom dance champion and choreographer Pierre Dulaine from trying, literally, one step at a time.  

Having taught 350,000 New York City fifth-graders to dance via the Dancing Classrooms program that he founded in 1994, the man famously portrayed by Antonio Banderas in the 2006 feature film “Take the Lead” returned to his native Jaffa to bring young Jewish and Palestinian Israelis together on the dance floor. The result is “Dancing in Jaffa,” a documentary that chronicles his challenging journey and ultimate triumph. 

Dulaine was born in 1944 to a French-Palestinian mother and an Irish father, but he hadn’t been back to the city since his family fled to Amman, Jordan, when he was 4 years old, later settling in Birmingham, England. Dancing professionally by the time he was 18 and competing all over the world, Dulaine, born Peter Heney, never forgot where he came from and vowed to return one day. 

I wanted to give a gift to the children of Jaffa, give them the confidence that comes from dancing that I had lacked as a teenager,” Dulaine said. His plan was set in motion when Israeli educator Miri Shahaf-Levi contacted him in the summer of 2005 after seeing the documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom,” about his Dancing Classrooms, which uses ballroom dancing to teach life skills to fifth- and eighth-grade students in communities throughout the United States. Shahaf-Levi suggested bringing the same program to Israel. “I said yes, but I would only do it with Palestinians and Jews. She found the schools for me — two Arab schools, two Jewish schools, and one mixed.”

Some parents declined to have their children participate, but ultimately Dulaine ended up with 125 fifth-graders meeting at the Arab-Jewish community center in Jaffa. It did not go well at first. 

Faced with skeptical adults and uncooperative children, “I was tearing my hair out,” Dulaine admitted. But once he brought in his longtime dance partner, Yvonne Marceau, to help demonstrate the dances, the children began to respond.  Eighty-four children made it to the final competition, a showcase in which the  students performed with their Palestinian and Jewish parents watching side by side. 

“It’s the hardest thing I have ever attempted and done, and the most satisfying,” Dulaine said, confiding that he’s seen the documentary more than 30 times now and still cries at the screenings. 

During the filming of “Take the Lead” in 2005, Dulaine had told producer Diane Nabatoff about his dream to bring Jewish and Palestinian children together on the dance floor, and she asked him to call her when he was ready to proceed. “He called in December 2010 to say he was going to go in February, and, with the holidays, the timing couldn’t have been worse. But I put together my team, and we raised money as we were shooting,” Nabatoff said. 

She hired Hilla Medalia, a Jewish-Israeli writer-director, as well as a mixed Jewish and Arab crew, and tapped ballroom expert Nigel Lythgoe (“So You Think You Can Dance”), along with entertainer and children’s advocate La Toya Jackson and noted documentarian Morgan Spurlock as executive producers — “high-profile people who could really get the word out.” 

Nabatoff knew she’d single out some children to spotlight, and several emerged as the most compelling, including an open-minded Jewish girl named Lois and a Palestinian student named Noor, a girl whose transformation into a confident, happier pre-teen is one of the film’s highlights. 

“Dancing gives you all these skills — self-respect, respect for others, self-discipline, self-esteem and improved academics,” Nabatoff noted, praising Dulaine “for achieving in 10 weeks what people haven’t been able to achieve in hundreds of years. If you change the children, you change the future because you engage the parents. You can’t be angry or hostile when you’re dancing. It’s like taking a happy pill.”

Nabatoff, who grew up in New York in a Reform Jewish family, is a married stepmother of four grown children, ages 21 to 34. She recalled “Dancing in Jaffa’s” Israeli premiere last May, which took place outdoors on a rainy evening at the port of Tel Aviv on the opening night of the DocAviv Film Festival. “Everyone was glued to the screen. People really responded to it. It made them laugh, cry, and touched their hearts.”

While she concedes that a film and a dance program can’t resolve the problems in the Middle East on their own, she believes that “if you put this program in every school, in every city, in every country, you would start to change the children — and the children will do the rest.”  

Along the same lines, Dulaine took the program to Belfast last year, bringing Protestant and Catholic students together, and he may do so as well in Berlin. In France, a study guide will be issued to every school with the “Dancing in Jaffa” DVD. Shahaf-Levi, now director of Dancing Classrooms Israel, has expanded the program, teaching nearly 3,000 children to date. 

“I planted the seeds, and she’s growing it,” Dulaine said. “I’d like to take this film to schools everywhere to teach tolerance and show people that it is possible to exist side by side if you have compassion and respect for your fellow human being.”

Nabatoff, who is now developing a documentary about alternative cancer treatments with actor Stanley Tucci, said she hopes parents will request Dancing Classrooms at their kids’ schools, and encourages conversation and video-sharing at dancinginjaffa.com and on the film’s Facebook page. “We want to engage people in the discussion,” she said. ”It’s not just a movie. It’s a movement.”

“Dancing in Jaffa” opens at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on April 18.

 

Humor thrives in ‘Divorce Party: The Musical’


Divorce can be a devastating experience, but one can get through it, survive and even thrive, according to Amy Botwinick, co-author of “Divorce Party: The Musical,” currently running at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. 

The story centers on Linda (Janna Cardia), whose marriage ended when her husband came out of the closet and left her for another man. Linda is wallowing in misery and devouring Chubby Hubby ice cream. Enter her sister (Mary Jayne Waddell), her cousin (Samara Dunn) and her friend (Soara-Joye Ross), who have come to throw her a divorce party and lift her spirits. By the show’s end, Linda has been transformed, physically and emotionally, and is living a full life.

Botwinick, a former chiropractor, went through her own traumatic divorce some 12 years ago. She went on to become a divorce coach, helping other women get through their breakups. After five years of coaching, Botwinick wanted to do more, and the idea for a play came to her as an outgrowth of her therapy.

“My divorce took three years, and I remember going to my therapist, and she said, ‘You’re killing me. I don’t know what to do with you.’ She suggested that I start journaling my thoughts down on paper. I started writing my heart out, and the first thing was a book, ‘Congratulations on Your Divorce.’ That book was a little piece of me, but I interviewed a lot of other men and women, and I said, ‘Please tell me how you made it through this, because I need help.’ And they shared their stories of love, of loss, of why they stayed together, why they chose to leave, and what their lives looked like.

“I think the play was just me writing about what I learned from all these women that I coached, what I learned about myself and how you put your big-girl pants on and start over again.”

Botwinick had never actually written a play, so when she discovered that Tony Award-winning Broadway producer Mark Schwartz was at an event she was attending in Palm Beach, Fla., she introduced herself to him and said she had written a book on divorce and felt the subject would lend itself to a musical. As it happened, Schwartz, who had produced the off-Broadway hit “Menopause: The Musical” and was trying to decide what subject to tackle next, was thinking along the same line. The two ultimately got together and began to collaborate, with Schwartz guiding Botwinick in structuring a script and writing dialogue. He also brought in Jay Falzone to work with them on the book, direct the production and create lyrics that parodied popular tunes, a device modeled on the musical numbers in “Menopause.”

After honing the material for a few years, they premiered the play last January in West Palm Beach, Fla., breaking every box office record for the last 20 years. There was also a production in Toronto, which Schwartz said sold more than 20,000 tickets. 

The producer, who has divorced twice, is quick to emphasize that the show is not just aimed at divorced people. “This is really, really important. It doesn’t matter if you’re single, married or divorced, this is one funny, funny time at the theater. Everybody knows someone who’s been through a divorce, or is going through a divorce. It’s a very normal part of our lives.” 

Although the play unfolds from a woman’s point of view, the show includes about nine “boy toy” characters, all played by actor Scott Ahearn.

“It’s a tour-de-force performance,” Schwartz remarked, “and the audience loves him at the end. But h interacts with the women only as a third person. He’s not their friend; he doesn’t know them. He’s a pizza delivery boy; he’s a massage therapist; he’s a yoga master; he’s a makeover artist. He comes back in different guises.”

Although it is not a specifically Jewish play, Botwinick, who now lives in Florida and is remarried to “a nice Jewish attorney,” said her approach was heavily influenced by the values she learned as a Jewish girl from New Jersey. 

“Growing up as a Jewish girl with this idea of always trying to be the bigger person, always trying to do the best you can, not being mean or vicious, a lot of that is in there, because a lot of people go through difficult times and they lash out, or they go for revenge. I just think about how I grew up, what I learned in Hebrew School and my bat mitzvah, about always giving back, whether it’s to your friends or your family, and just trying to be supportive and helpful.

“Things get hard,” she continued. “We always have hard times as Jews, right? We always have issues, but what do we do? We always pick ourselves up, and we move on, and we move on with a good heart, and with humor. Humor is everything.”

“Divorce Party: The Musical” runs until April 14 at the El Portal Theatre. For tickets or more information, call (866) 811-4111 or visit 

www.elportaltheatre.com.

 

Life in the Lopez Beatles [VIDEO]


Newspaper-reading Angelenos may recognize the byline Robert Lloyd. 

What they may not know is that the Los Angeles Times television critic once was more concerned with singing about a “Bitchen Party” than with covering the Golden Globes, which take place this year on Jan. 13.

Back in the early ’80s, Lloyd sang and played guitar on a catchy single with that name by a group called Lopez Beatles. It aired on MTV and local programs nationwide, including Richard Blade’s “MV3” on Channel 9.

Don’t tear your gray hairs out if you can’t remember. Neither Lopez Beatles nor their facetious song got very far — not that it matters to Lloyd.

“It was a true, fun experience,” he said. “A lot of music at the time was sort of dark, and we weren’t dark.”

The tongue-in-cheek video for the song featured the happy-go-lucky Lopez Beatles rocking out at a prom-like party, riffing on who was going to attend: “Student drivers are gonna be there, and easy riders are gonna be there. The heads of NATO are gonna be there, and Quasimodo is gonna be there.”

The video’s dead ringer for Rick Moranis, Lloyd co-wrote the song with the band’s chief songwriter/founding frontman, Bruce D. Rhodewalt.

Story continues after the video.

Lloyd, of Ukrainian descent, grew up in Encino and attended California State University, Northridge, and New College of Florida in Sarasota. The art major said his “aspiration was not to work in an office or to do anything where I was required to wear a tie.”

Ground zero for Lopez Beatles was Echo Park, where Rhodewalt and his roommate Lloyd Ehrenberg, who played guitar, lived in an Angeleno Heights duplex. In 1981, assistant music editor Rhodewalt and typesetter-cum-music reviewer Lloyd became friends at LA Weekly. Together with Ehrenberg, they formed the band, which eventually came to include drummer Jim Goodall and bassist Doug Freeman. 

“I thought it’d be a great idea to call ourselves the Beatles,” Rhodewalt said. “We’d get sued, get our names in the paper. … Since we lived in Echo Park, every other tire store, every other carniceria is called Lopez, so … the Lopez Beatles.”

Glenn Morgan directed the “Bitchen Party” video with co-director/producer Ellen Pittleman, who later became a Paramount executive.

“Originally, the song had no fixed lyrics except for the chorus,” Lloyd said. “We would just make up who was going to be there on the spot, sometimes naming people in our terrifically tiny audience. We wrote set lyrics [and recorded the song] in order for our friend Glenn to make the video, as a calling card for his directing.”

Morgan had entered the business as editor on Mary Lambert’s videos for a suddenly hot Warner Bros. artist.

“We both rode Madonna’s coattails to great success,” joked Morgan, who edited the singer’s breakthrough video “Borderline,” as well as “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl.” 

After Janet Jackson’s “Nasty Boys,” the Knoxville, Tenn., native yearned to direct. So he, Lloyd, Rhodewalt and Pittleman finalized lyrics to “Bitchen,” conscious of their $5,000 budget. At former bassist David Vaught’s Van Nuys studio, the band recorded the definitive version of the video, with the Lopez Beatles jamming to an empty room, ticking off an eclectic list of expected party guests.

Morgan shot exteriors near Farmers Market at Third Street and Fairfax Avenue, but a shutter problem junked the footage. Reshooting weeks later, Morgan enlisted video-world colleague Bill Pope, who went on to be director of photography for the “Matrix” and “Spider-Man” movies.

“We did a better job the second time,” Morgan said, smiling.

“Bitchen Party” ran on MTV’s “Basement Tapes” co-hosted by Martha Quinn and special guest Billy Crystal. The Los Angeles Times’ Calendar section, which now regularly runs Lloyd’s byline, praised the clip over Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer.”

In 1985, John Schweitzer’s minuscule label Shanghai Records pressed 1,000 copies of a “Bitchen Party”/”Spin-a-Roo” single.

“I remember hearing it on the radio,” Lloyd said.

Failing to capitalize on any momentum, Lopez Beatles faded away after Rhodewalt moved to Long Beach to start a family. Occasionally, they reunite for friends.

“We weren’t careerist about it,” Lloyd added.

After editing LA Style magazine, Lloyd returned to LA Weekly from 1996 to 2001, writing the Critical List column. In 2003, he jumped to the Times.

Today, Freeman, who jams Thursday nights at the Culver Hotel in Culver City, supervises editing on documentaries, while La Quinta resident Rhodewalt teaches math at Palm Springs High School. Goodall toured worldwide with band Medicine. 

Tiring of videos, Morgan settled into television in 1994. Since 2008, the Malibou Lake resident has worked post-production on “Project Runway.” Work relocated graphic artist Ehrenberg to Oakland. He returned to Ocean Park and, in 1994, died of Lou Gehrig’s disease at 36.

“Bitchen Party” may not have become a major part of the pop-culture musical canon, but, Lloyd said, “That video does seem to have made its way through the world. It’s authentically celebratory, and we were authentically excited when we recorded it. I think that’s why people responded to it. It was very simple.”

Israel and Nov. 29


“The Vote,” the best show in town, opened at 7:45 p.m. on Nov. 29 and, after 23 acts, closed down 60 minutes later.

During that one hour, speakers, actors, musicians, singers and dancers commemorated the day, 65 years ago, when the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.

Less than six months later, the State of Israel was reborn.

In a seamless mix of historical remembrances, the day — and preceding years of persecution and struggle — came alive in words, film clips, re-enactments, and, most of all, in songs and dances of the era.

A large picture and the spirit of Theodor Herzl hovered over the audience as Rabbi David Wolpe and guitarist Ari Herstand invoked Herzl’s exhortation to the Zionist Congress and the Jewish people, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Israeli Consul General David Siegel and Judea Pearl spoke vividly of that November day in 1947 when the Jewish world held its collective breath as 58 nations voted yes, no or abstain on the partition of Palestine resolution.

The Rev. Alexei Smith of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, as well as Mormon and Protestant representatives in the audience, served as reminders that many Christians actively supported the nationhood struggle of their Jewish brethren.

Actress Naomi Ackerman and singers Mike Burstyn and Noa Dori entertained in repeated appearances, and the talented youngsters of the Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble and the MATI Kids Choir kept spirits high at the American Jewish University’s Gindi Auditorium.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein closed the evening with a poignant reminder that, only hours earlier, another United Nations vote had overwhelmingly backed a demand to upgrade the Palestinian status in the world body.

Amazingly, the entire show had been written and produced in three weeks by Craig Taubman and the staff at his Craig ‘N Co., and premiered without a single run-through or dress rehearsal.

In something close to a biblical miracle, rabbis, diplomats and performers voluntarily limited the lengths of their presentations to two to three minutes each.

The evening’s only negative notes were the many empty spaces left in the 474-seat Gindi Auditorium. Tickets were free, and 600 had been quickly distributed to the first-comers, leaving later applicants out of luck.

Yet a quarter of the ticket holders failed to show up, and the loss was theirs.

The seeds of the commemoration were planted in the pages of the Jewish Journal four years ago by Judea Pearl, UCLA professor, one of the world’s foremost authorities on artificial intelligence, and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, created to commemorate his journalist son, who was killed by Islamic terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.

In an 2008 op-ed in the Journal, titled “The Forgotten Miracle,” and a follow-up article a year later, Pearl called the 1947 U.N. vote “perhaps the most significant event in Jewish history since the Exodus from Egypt,” and “a new chapter in world history.”

He expressed deep chagrin that no Jewish organization, institution or academic center had seen fit to commemorate the event and called for a Jewish Thanksgiving Day to express gratitude to the 33 nations that had voted for the 1947 U.N. resolution.

It took the next four years to realize at least part of Pearl’s vision, and during that time, he pressed the idea around town to just about every major Jewish institution and Israeli outpost.

“All the leaders I talked to thought it was just a great idea, but they didn’t have the budget or the staff or the time to pitch in,” Pearl said in an interview last week.

Finally, the local Israeli Leadership Council and its CEO, Sagi Balasha, picked up on the concept a couple of months ago, engaged Taubman and put the show on the road.

Pearl, who thinks big, is now aiming for annual celebrations on Nov. 29 in Jewish communities throughout the world.

“Wouldn’t it be great if the consul generals of the 33 nations were invited to a celebration each year to express the Jewish community’s thanks?” Pearl asked.

“Or if Jewish student groups on American campuses invited their counterparts from the 33 countries?” It would be a Thanksgiving Day, Pearl said, in which the Jewish community remembers, and reminds others, of the day world opinion took the decisive step to enable the birth of Israel.

Observant life in progress


Barbara Heller likes to refer to herself as a “growing Jew.” 

The actress/singer has created a biographical show, “Finding Barb,” that traces her life from her dysfunctional family in Boca Raton, Fla., through her disappointing pursuit of an acting career in New York, to her indoctrination into Orthodox Judaism and, finally, to her present state of trying to balance her commitment to an observant life with her professional ambitions.

The play is running currently at Working Stage in West Hollywood, with performances continuing through Jan. 10.

The seeds of Heller’s quest seem to be rooted in the upheaval of her early home life. While her parents are caricatured in her play, she said the conflict between them was real.

“There was a lot of fighting in the house, not between me and my sister, but between my parents. 

“They both had their issues, and they both were really honest about it. Unfortunately, they shared everything with us, like their problems. But, on the other hand, nothing was hidden. I don’t know. I guess I got to see too much.”

Complicating matters, Heller remarked, was the feeling that she never fit any of the “boxes” into which she wanted to fit — she was never part of the “cool” group in elementary school, for example. She said it got better in high school, where she loved the extracurricular acting, singing and dancing activities and appeared in school productions.

Heller recalled that she was 13 when she decided she wanted acting to be her life’s work. She was in New York visiting her aunt, who was a lawyer.

“I looked at all the books in her office, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is so boring.’ And I looked at the cover of Time magazine. Jim Henson had just passed away, and I sat in her law library … and I just sobbed. I said, ‘I feel so much more connected to Jim Henson than to any of these books and being a lawyer.’ I remember that moment. I made a decision.  I said, ‘I have to be an actor.’ And that was it.” 

Heller attended Tisch School of the Arts at New York University but couldn’t finish because her parents were going through a messy divorce and didn’t have the money for her to continue there. Instead, she graduated from the University of Florida, in Gainesville, with a major in theater and returned to New York to try for acting roles. 

Although she did cabaret work, toured in an off-Broadway production, auditioned for numerous Broadway shows and got called back many times, she never actually landed a role on Broadway. She started to think about quitting. 

Then she was invited to a Shabbat dinner at the Upper West Side apartment of a friend she had met a few years earlier, when they visited eight concentration camps and Israel under the sponsorship of the World Zionist Organization.

That night, there was a security she had never previously enjoyed, certainly not when she was living with her parents. 

“I had no structure growing up,” she said. “So, to have even one dinner a week where everyone was loving and happy and there together, and there was good food on the table and we could have guests over — just the idea of having a wholesome, intimate Shabbat dinner that was loving was precious to me. I’d never had that before.

“I bought a dream that night.” 

She also met a couple there who suggested she attend a retreat in Orlando, which was being run by Isralight, an organization dedicated to “Inspiring a Renaissance in Jewish Living” through educational programs.

“I decided that weekend that I should go to Israel and study the Torah in the original text instead of the critical texts I had studied in college,” Heller said. “I stayed there for almost two years [off and on] learning in yeshivot.” 

She then steeped herself in Orthodoxy and endured years of match-made dating that is portrayed in her show as hilariously disastrous. 

But, for her, the woman’s role in Judaism does have a certain beauty. 

“I started to get really curious about what it means to be a Jewish woman,” she said. “What are the laws that I can embrace? I love the idea of niddah; I love the idea of a woman going to mikveh and praying, and being immersed in that water,” she said. 

During the period of her extreme Orthodox life, Heller spent some 10 years singing and performing exclusively for female audiences. She explained that it’s a very strict halachah for an observant woman to perform only for other women. But, ultimately, that limitation wasn’t fulfilling, and her current show is a way of reintroducing herself to more mainstream, integrated audiences.

As for dating, Heller said, as an observant woman, she didn’t touch men for six years. Still, she didn’t get married in the time frame that the rabbi said she would find a husband.

“I only dated observant men for nine, 10 years, and then I realized I’m not finding the right person for me. Maybe that’s because I’m not supposed to be fully observant in this very strict way. So, I started dating people who are not as religious, and I’m much happier, because I don’t really fit in the box of an Orthodox Jew.” 

At this point in her life, Heller said she considers herself “a growing Jew,” or “limmudnik.”

Limmud actually means ‘to learn’ or ‘learning,’ and I’m a learning Jew; I’m a growing Jew. I also teach Judaism. That’s part of what I do as a job. I teach Jewish students on the weekends at different synagogues and in their homes,” she said. “I teach Judaism, and I also run a theater camp for Jewish kids where there’s, partially, Jewish learning and theater studies as well.”

Heller concluded that her play is about finding a box that works for her, or taking pieces of different boxes and putting them together in a creative way.

“Finding Barb”

The Working Stage
1516 N. Gardner, Los Angeles 90046 (five blocks east of Fairfax)
(323) 521-8600
Thursdays through Jan. 10, 2013, 8 p.m.
No performance the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve
Tickets $25.00
Reservations: FindingBarbShow.Eventbrite.com/

Films of the Holocaust and non-Jews


Two documentary films, each touching the Holocaust era and celebrating the courage and devotion of non-Jews, are screening in Los Angeles.

The first is about Leopold Engleitner, bright-eyed and lucid at 107, who spent 11 years in and out of prisons and Nazi concentration camps, and, after a flight from Vienna to Los Angeles, is ready for his personal appearance tour.

He is the central figure in “Ladder in the Lions’ Den,” a tribute to the man and to the steadfastness of thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Hitler regime.

Engleitner, born in 1905, was an Austrian peasant farmer in a small village near Salzburg when he joined a Jehovah’s Witness study group. He soon became a full member, accepting the movement’s belief in complete separation from secular governments, including refusal to salute the flag or serve in the army of any nation. 

He got his first taste of prison in 1934, under the authoritarian regime of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, and when the German troops marched in in 1938, Engleitner’s fate was sealed. He wouldn’t raise his right arm in the Hitler salute, and after refusing army service was shipped off to Buchenwald as the first in a series of concentration camps. 

There, some 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses were kept in separate barracks from Jewish prisoners, with whom, according to Engleitner, the Witnesses shared some of their food.

From time to time, the Nazis, badly in need of manpower, offered Engleitner his freedom if he would sign a document affirming his loyalty to the Third Reich.

His courageous refusal to do so is followed in the film by the tactless insertion of a Jewish inmate, who affirms, “I would have signed anything to get out.” This statement, just a few seconds long, is one of the few allusions to the extermination of the Jews. That omission may be hard to swallow, but seems pardonable given how many books and films have recorded the Jewish holocaust, and how few the fate of other groups.

All in all, according to the film’s postscript, there were 20,000 Witnesses in Germany and Austria before Hitler came to power, of whom 9,270 were imprisoned, 1,130 died and 310 were executed.

When Engleitner finally returned to his village, he was scorned by most of his neighbors as a coward for his refusal to serve in the army, and as a likely criminal given his imprisonment in concentration camps.

His story might have died with him, but for a chance meeting with Bernhard Rammerstorfer, a fellow Witness and later the executive producer and co-director of the film. Rammerstorfer persuaded the centenarian to tell of his experiences in a book titled “Unbroken Will,” (a title more apt than the movie’s) and then created the 39-minute documentary. 

Credits include co-producer A. Ferenc Gutai, actors portraying Engleitner and others as young men, and Frederic Fuss, an Angeleno, as the English-language narrator. There are some rough edges to the documentary, pointing to a slim budget and the inexperience of the filmmakers, but it is a story well worth telling.

As Fuss noted in an interview, “The film shows the difference that one man can make.”

“Ladder in the Lions’ Den” will screen daily Nov. 9-15 at 12:30 p.m. at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino, with Engleitner scheduled to be in attendance.

 

A second film centers on Gyongyi Mago, a Catholic high school teacher in the Hungarian town of Kalocsa, who, through sheer conviction and persistence, wills her largely indifferent community to resurrect and honor the memory of its murdered and exiled Jewish citizens.

Her story and that of an extinguished but once content and assimilated Jewish community, are documented by veteran Los Angeles filmmaker Gabor Kalman in the full-length feature “There Was Once…”

Kalman is both the creator of and a participant in the film, which is told with affection but not sentimentality, while also warning that the anti-Semitism and fascism pervading much of Hungarian society in the 1930s and ’40s remains a constant today.

Born in Kalocsa 78 years ago, Kalman received an e-mail from Mago in 2008 asking for his help in her research on the once 600-strong Jewish community in his birthplace. The effervescent teacher had found Kalman’s name on the “Jaross List,” compiled by a local official who conscientiously put down the names of all Jewish residents slated for extermination.

Kalman was so impressed by Mago’s project and dedication that he flew to Hungary, rounded up a camera crew and started interviewing elderly Christian residents who still remembered their former Jewish neighbors. He followed up by talking to a handful of the town’s Jewish survivors and their descendants now living in Canada, the United States and Israel.

The camera follows Mago as she exhorts and mobilizes her high school class to bear witness to the lives and fate of the town’s Jews, scours church archives for the history of the first Jews to settle in Kalocsa, and explains to those who wonder why a Catholic should care about dead Jews, “I have always felt for those who were humiliated.”

She then persuades the powerful local archbishop and the town’s mayor to back her plan to put on a commemorative ceremony in 2009, exactly 65 years to the day that the Holocaust caught up with Hungary’s Jews.

The ceremony, attended by seven survivors and their children and grandchildren, is the moving highlight of the film. In stark contrast are scenes of Hungarian Nazis in uniform, demonstrating a few blocks away.

The film is marked by thorough research, moments of high drama, and innovative cinematography and graphics. For example, in one Jewish grade school picture, five survivors are highlighted, while the 10 victims remain in dark shadows.

Kalman and his parents survived the war, largely in hiding. Gabor participated in the abortive 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet occupiers, and then immigrated to the United States.

After graduation from UC Berkeley and Stanford, Kalman established himself as an award-winning documentary filmmaker and teacher at USC, Occidental College and currently at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. 

“There Was Once…” will screen as part of the local Hungarian Film Festival on Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. at Laemmle’s NoHo 7 Theatre in North Hollywood.

Tickets are $6 per person and can be purchased in advance by phoning Laemmle Theatres at (310) 478-3836 or the Hungarian Film Festival at (818) 564-4228. 


For more information about “Ladder in the Lions’ Den,” visit unbrokenwill.com.

For more information about “There Was Once…,” visit  therewasoncefilm.com.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley sees the big picture


In the new movie “Hirokin: The Last Samurai,” due out Tuesday on DVD, the title character, a stranger in a strange world, sets off on a soul-searching odyssey in which his calling becomes inextricably linked to the new inhabitants he meets around him. 

It’s only fitting Ohr HaTorah’s Rabbi Mordecai Finley has a role in this independent science-fiction film. In some ways, Hirokin’s journey mirrors Findley’s and that of his congregation.

Written and directed by Ohr HaTorah congregant Alejo Mo-Sun, “Hirokin” will have its debut screening in Los Angeles at 8 p.m. Nov. 8 at Sophos Café, part of the synagogue’s The Hub on Venice. 

As the rabbinical-esque leader of an ancient tribe on the planet Aradius, Finley has a juicy part at the film’s beginning. While in no way an aspiring or professional actor, Finley has had roles in three films before “Hirokin,” two of which were related to Ohr HaTorah congregant David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and filmmaker best known for plays with vituperative characters, such as “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

The highly regarded rabbi says he isn’t ambitious. So how did he wind up with a $5 million facility, a restaurant, community-wide programming and a featured role in a sci-fi flick?

Dumb luck? Blessings in disguises? Prominent, well-placed congregants? Shrewdly seized opportunities? All of the above, as it turns out.

Until finding a permanent home at the corner of Venice Boulevard and Barrington Avenue in 2008, the nomadic Ohr HaTorah was, for years, based at a variety of rented spaces, most notably Redeemer Baptist Church on National Boulevard (1995-2000) and Faith Tabernacle on Olympic and Perdue (2000-08). Finley honed sharp sermons and lively music-filled services at both locations, cultivating an inclusive atmosphere that gained currency with a cross-section of spiritual seekers, including disenfranchised young Jews and interfaith couples.

From left: Rabbi Mordecai Finley and Alejo Mo-Sun. Photo by Michael Aushenker

When Ohr HaTorah was gingerly evicted because the church had commercial designs for its building on weekends, Finley and his wife and collaborator, Meirav Finley, finally invested in their current spot, which turned into a $5 million purchase and upgrade. Meirav Finley decided that as long as they were renovating the dilapidated building, they might as well pursue a restaurant license and create a cafe. 

What they created together is The Hub on Venice, which houses six separate facilities — intended to serve area Jews and non-Jews alike — under one roof, including Ohr HaTorah, Sophos Café, the Institute for Wisdom and Conscious Living, Venice Boulevard Community Center, Beach Communities Jewish Center, and the Early Childhood Center, which features Kinder Circle Preschool, a parent-and-me program and parenting classes. 

Currently open only on Thursday and Saturday nights, Sophos Café, a restaurant with a Mediterranean menu, has become a hub for cultural happenings from live entertainment to Pilates. 

Mamet told the Journal he plans to participate in The Hub, whether it will be lecturing about writing and structure or conducting readings of his plays. 

Finley is quick to credit Meirav, as the force behind the restaurant and its community-aimed programming, which began in earnest in September. (“She did all of the designing, it’s her creative genius.”) In this context, the community transcends Ohr HaTorah’s base.

“When we came to this neighborhood four years ago, we looked around us and we realized that we did not want to be seen as someone who invaded their community but rather serve their needs,” Meirav Finley said.

The rebbetzin, who describes her multicultural neighborhood as “an eclectic group of unaffiliated Jewish population, Latino, Asian,” has already calendared November with events. On Nov. 3, Sophos will serve Parisian delicacies on French Night; Nov. 10 will feature musicians jamming on Blues Night; Nov. 17 features a return of open-mic stand-up comedy; and Nov. 24 will feature a visit by an Australian wit with traditional Orthodox roots. Sophos, which has already featured a Celtic Night, will also host a Russian Night and Indonesian Night. The diverse themes will continue reflecting the ethnic makeup of Ohr HaTorah’s multicultural locale.

Fresh off of a four-year campaign to renovate the shul, the Finleys realized the abundance of ethnic riches and opportunities surrounding their new digs. Having endured the “huge ordeal” it took across two years to get a restaurant license, Meirav Finley, who last Saturday threw herself into the trenches of the cafe’s kitchen when Sophos was short-staffed, has also embraced with gusto what the Finleys have built. Ohr HaTorah wants to become a welcome station for people of all backgrounds and faiths. 

Her greatest hope is to “engage the thriving community that’s around us, that’s really in our backyard,” she said. 

For more information about the “Hirokin: The Last Samurai” screening or The Hub, visit this article at thehubonvenice.com

Rescuing Jewish Musicians


When Zubin Mehta takes the stage at the Disney Concert Hall on Oct. 30 to conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), most in the audience will know that they’re hearing a world-class orchestra. Very few will realize, however, that the IPO’s founding was integral to the origins of the modern Jewish state. That beginning not only inaugurated the arts in Israel, but it was coupled with the saving of untold numbers of Jews from the Holocaust. Now that story is being told on the big screen in director Josh Aronson’s “Orchestra of Exiles,” in first-run screenings at selected Laemmle theaters beginning Nov. 2.

It’s the story of Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947), a poor Polish Jew who rose to become one of Europe’s leading concert violinists of the early 20th century. As German orchestras began expelling their Jewish members, he had the vision to see the coming Holocaust. He fought the rampant European Jew hatred of the 1930s and ’40s with his greatest weapon: his violin. Huberman then leveraged his rock-star status to attract star Jewish soloists to join him in building a great symphony orchestra in Palestine. In so doing, he arranged for the safe exit of at least 1,000 Jews.

While Aronson has directed fictional screenplays, the 60-year-old filmmaker’s medium of choice is documentary filmmaking. His resume includes “Sound and Fury” (2000), “Beautiful Daughters” (2006) and “Bullrider” (2006). And as a documentarian, he’s used to being buttonholed about a subject.

“Everybody comes to you with the greatest story that’s never been told,” he says with a degree of weariness from his home in New York City. “But a friend of mine was going to Vienna to play with violinist Joshua Bell, to honor this long-dead violinist, Huberman. I’ve been a pianist since I was 5 years old, and my wife, Maria Bachmann, is a concert violinist, so I know classical music. But I didn’t know about Bronislaw Huberman.”

“When I heard who Huberman was and what he did,” Aronson enthuses, clearly energized by the memory, “I got it: one of the most renowned concert violinists of his time, who saved the essence of Jewish European culture from the Nazis and brought it to Palestine. I immediately knew I had to make this movie. How could I not tell this story?”

Aronson grew up in St. Louis. “My family came from Vilnius and Romania,” he says, “before World War I. So there are no Holocaust stories in my family. I’d never much looked into it before I started this project, but because of Huberman’s story, I knew it was time.”

“Orchestra of Exiles” features vibrant on-screen testimony from Mehta (whose history with the IPO stretches 50 years), violinists Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Bell. There is no film of Huberman, so historic photographs, newspapers and artifacts supply a sense of the time. Aronson also staged scenes with actors, shot in muted colors and soft-focus. He uses written passages — from Huberman, Adolf Hitler and Arturo Toscanini — to provide effective voice-overs.

Alongside Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, Huberman was part of the post-World War I Pan-European movement. A utopian precursor to the European Union that was rendered irrelevant by World War II, its adherents thought it would inoculate Europe from war.

“Huberman was not a religious Jew,” Aronson surmises, “that I know of.” Does he make anything of the fact that all three were nonreligious Jews? “I don’t know,” Aronson ponders, “except to say that Jews have hearts; Jews care, and Jews have often known the horrors of war in ways that other people haven’t. I know Huberman spoke very passionately for Pan-Europeanism at his concerts.”

The movie contains some picturesque on-camera descriptions by Perlman, Zukerman and Bell of Huberman’s violin playing. Aronson clarifies: “Heifetz and Paganini were known for their very precise work; Huberman’s style was very different. He was much rougher — very emotional, very passionate and given to playing wrong notes now and then. But he didn’t care. There are recordings of him from the 1930s, but they’re not of good quality, so we really can’t know what the experience of hearing him was like. I suppose Nigel Kennedy would be the closest present-day violinist to Huberman.”

When Hitler assumed power in 1933, German Jews saw their freedom and work activities slowly constricting. German symphonies began to pink slip Jewish musicians, despite the fact that they were often their prize soloists. Third Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels knew the value of showing a benign treatment of Jews to the larger world. When a group of unemployed Jewish actors formed their own theater company, Goebbels loudly trumpeted it as an example of Nazi benevolence. Huberman wasn’t fooled, and he turned down offers to perform in Germany, including a personal plea from Hitler.

The Zionist movement was taking hold in Palestine, and it resonated with Huberman. Like Einstein, Huberman saw the gathering dark clouds in Europe and realized the need for a Jewish homeland. He began putting out a call to out-of-work Jewish musicians and held blind auditions in order to attract the absolute best players. Huberman was able to arrange for many safe passages to Palestine for musicians and even their family members. He moved Jews out of Europe up until 1939.

“There are no records,” Aronson says, “so we don’t know how many people Huberman was personally responsible for. At the very least it was 300, but it may have been as many as 3,000.”

Helgard Field (whose husband, Irwin Field, is a former publisher of the Jewish Journal and serves on the board) is on the national board of the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (AFIPO) and is a member of the West Coast Chairmen’s Council of AFIPO. The AFIPO officially began in the 1980s as a support organization. “I heard that Zubin Mehta was conducting the orchestra in Buckingham Palace about 18 years ago, and I thought it was ironic that the concert was taking place right down the hall from where so many people who wanted to destroy Israel so many years ago had gathered,” Helgard Field says.

“This orchestra,” she points out, “was made up of specialists and soloists. It rose like a phoenix up out of the ashes of Europe. It now has musicians who are third-generation IPO members. And this documentary is a fascinating and vital document of what happened in Europe. It’s extremely important that young people everywhere see it.”

Making documentaries is a long-distance runner’s job. It’s not uncommon for biographers and documentarians to so thoroughly dissect their subjects that they lose all affection they once had for them. So, after completing the movie, how does Aronson ultimately feel about Huberman, the man? Pausing a moment to consider, he replies: “He had a lot of eccentricities, the way great artists do. And I already knew a fair amount of negatives about him; he didn’t really father his own son. But that’s a common theme with famous men. I ended up liking him for his dedication. He gave up half of his income when Hitler came to power by refusing to perform in Germany; a lot of great musicians stayed where they were, earning comfortable livings. For a while, anyway. …

“He’d seen real pogroms in Poland as a boy. And out of the anti-Semitism all around him, he saw an opportunity to build something great with, apparently, no interest in any personal accolades or publicity whatsoever. He was so famous by his 40s that I don’t think he cared at all about fame anymore. It’s just impossible that he didn’t see what he was doing as a mission of mercy.”

 

The film will screen locally at four Laemmle theaters: Music Hall in Beverly Hills, Town Center 5 in Encino, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, and Claremont 5 in Claremont.

Israeli Philharmonic’s storied history


The storied Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, founded as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra 12 years before the rebirth of the Jewish state, and its music-director-for-life Zubin Mehta, will join in concert on Oct. 30 at Disney Hall.

The event marks the final stop in a five-day national tour, with performances in New York’s Carnegie Hall, Palm Desert, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

Complementing the IPO’s tour will be the release of the film “Orchestra of Exiles,” which documents the struggle to establish the orchestra in 1936 and to rescue German Jewish musicians from Nazi persecution. 

From the IPO’s beginnings, it has attracted the world’s greatest conductors, starting with Arturo Toscanini, who gave the fledgling orchestra his imprimatur by leading the inaugural concert in Tel Aviv.

More recently, in 2008 and 2010, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s much loved conductor Gustavo Dudamel has wielded the baton. In a phone interview, Gabriel Vole, a veteran IPO member, told an anecdote about Dudamel’s encounter with Jewish tradition that is worth repeating.

Dudamel set a rehearsal for late Saturday afternoon, but some religiously observant players did not show up until after the end of Shabbat. When Dudamel asked about their absence, a violinist gave a one-word explanation, “Shabbes.”

At this, the conductor grew extremely agitated and shouted, “Chavez? What does this have to do with Hugo Chavez?” (He was referring, of course, to the president of Dudamel’s native Venezuela.)

The IPO program for its Oct. 30 performance consists of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, flanked by Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. Soloist for the Chopin concerto will be 25-year-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, a crowd favorite as much for her musicianship as for her risqué fashion statements.

Over its 76-year lifespan, the IPO has undergone many transformations, and no one is a better chronicler of these than double bass player Vole, who represents the third generation in his family to perform with the orchestra.

His maternal grandfather, Polish-born violinist Jacob Surowicz, was a co-founder of the orchestra, followed by Gabriel’s father, Leo Vole, whose son inherited his love for the double bass. In addition, Gabriel’s mother, Sarah, and uncle Maurice filled in occasionally.

At its beginning, the orchestra was made up mainly of refugees from Germany and a large Polish contingent, rounded out by a smattering of Russians, Hungarians, Romanians and native-born sabras, Vole said.

“At that time,” he added, “the rehearsals, the correspondence, everything was in German.”

That lasted until the 1950s, when an increasing number of native-trained musicians joined, and again with the influx of talented musicians from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s, who now make up about half of the 100-piece orchestra.

A number of players from North and South America have also entered the ranks, and the main working languages now are Hebrew and English. The latter is mainly to accommodate many of the Russians, who understand English better than Hebrew.

But the biggest change is in the number of women. “When I signed up in 1967, there were maybe three or four women in the orchestra,” Vole said. “Now, I’d say they make up 40 percent or more of the members.”

Playing for the IPO is usually a lifelong commitment. “It’s not simply about playing music, but about solidarity and making music together,” Vole said.

The love affair between the IPO and India-born conductor Zubin Mehta is passionate and long-standing. He knows all musicians by their first names, as well as those of their spouses, and will converse in Yiddish with Russian newcomers.

“Zubin’s identification and involvement with the orchestra is complete, and so is his identification with Israel,” Vole said.

The founder of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, later the IPO, was Bronislaw Huberman, and the documentary “Orchestra of Exiles” is a tribute by filmmaker Josh Aronson to the single-minded dedication and perseverance of the man.

A native of Poland, Huberman was a musical child prodigy, relentlessly driven by his father and who became a world-renowned violinist.

Disillusioned by World War I, Huberman quit at the height of his fame to broaden his education at the Sorbonne and became an ardent advocate of a Pan-European union.

With the rise of Hitler, and seeing worse to come, he set about forming a world-class orchestra in a yet largely barren land, far from the coffee and opera houses of Vienna or Budapest.

In 1936, facing a critical shortfall of $80,000 to launch his venture, Huberman enlisted an amateur violinist named Albert Einstein, and together they raised the sum at one benefit dinner in New York.

For the orchestra’s inaugural concert under the great Italian conductor and ardent anti-fascist Toscanini, 100,000 eager buyers, out of a total Jewish population of 400,000, vied to buy the 2,000 available tickets.

Among those paying tribute to Huberman, and demonstrating their own virtuosity in the film, are violinists Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman and Joshua Bell.

The Oct. 30 concert also will include a fundraising gala, featuring a pre-concert supper on the Disney Hall rooftop garden and a post-concert champagne and dessert reception with the artists, sponsored by the West Coast Friends of the IPO’s Chairmen’s Council.

The group is headed by Marilyn Ziering, who said that more than 60 individual and family members raise, on an average, $1 million a year and occasionally accompany the orchestra on its European tours.

“I think the IPO is Israel’s best cultural ambassador,” she said. “When the orchestra plays, people open their minds to an Israel that’s different from the daily headlines.”

The Oct. 30 concert starts at 8 p.m. at Disney Hall. For ticket information, call (323) 850-2000 or visit www.laphil.com/tickets.

For participation in the benefit gala, contact Danielle Ames Spivak at (310) 445-8406, or e-mail Dames@AFIPO.org.

On Israel Philharmonic’s whirlwind U.S. tour, a N.Y. debut for Israeli’s symphony


Few can chronicle the changes in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra better than Gabriel Vole, a veteran double bass player.

Vole represents the third generation of his family to perform with the orchestra. His maternal grandfather, the Polish-born violinist Jacob Surowicz, was a co-founder and was followed by Gabriel’s father, Leopold, whose son inherited his love for the double bass. In addition, Gabriel’s mother, Sarah, and uncle Maurice filled in occasionally.

The biggest change, Vole says, is the number of women.

“When I signed up in 1967, there were maybe three or four women in the orchestra,” Vole said. “Now I’d say they make up 40 percent or more of the members.”

Vole and the IPO, led by music director for life Zubin Mehta, are kicking off a five-day concert tour spanning four American cities with a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York on Oct. 25 before moving on to Palm Springs, Calif., Las Vegas and Disney Hall in Los Angeles on successive nights starting Oct. 28.

Complementing the IPO’s tour will be the release of the film “Orchestra of Exiles,” which documents the struggle to establish the orchestra in 1936 and to rescue German Jewish musicians from Nazi persecution.

The Carnegie Hall concert will include the New York premiere of “Mechaye Hametim” (Revival of the Dead), a choral symphony by Israeli composer and conductor Noam Sheriff that is dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust and the builders of Israel. Also at the famed venue, Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, 25, an audience favorite for her musicianship and fashion statements, will play in Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor.

In the other venues, Wang will perform in Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor. The program for all four concerts will feature Schubert's Symphony No. 3 and Brahms' Symphony No. 1.

Over its 76 years, the IPO has undergone many transformations.

Vole noted that the orchestra early on was comprised mainly of refugees from Germany and a large Polish contingent, and rounded out by a smattering of Russians, Hungarians, Romanians and native Israelis.

“At that time, the rehearsals, the correspondence, everything was in German,” Vole said in a phone interview with JTA.

That lasted until the 1950s, when an increasing number of native-trained musicians joined. An influx of talented musicians from the Soviet Union came in the 1970s and ‘80s, and they now make up about half of the 100-piece orchestra.

A number of players from North and South America also have entered the ranks, and the main working languages now are Hebrew and English. The latter is mainly to accommodate many of the Russians, who understand English better than Hebrew.

Vole tells the story of Gustavo Dudamel, now the effervescent conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, leading the IPO in 2008 and 2010 and once setting a rehearsal for late Saturday afternoon. Some religiously observant players did not show up until after the end of Sabbath.

When Dudamel asked about their absence, a violinist gave a one-word explanation: “Shabbes.”

The conductor grew extremely agitated and shouted, “Chavez? What does this have to do with Hugo Chavez?,” referring to the president of Dudamel’s native Venezuela.

Vole says playing for the IPO is not purely about playing music “but about solidarity and making music together.”

The love affair between the orchestra and the India-born Mehta is passionate and long standing. He knows the musicians and their spouses by their first names, and will converse in Yiddish with Russian newcomers.

“Zubin’s identification and involvement with the orchestra is complete, and so is his identification with Israel,” Vole said.

The founder of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, a precursor to the IPO, was Bronislaw Huberman, and the documentary “Orchestra of Exiles” is a tribute by filmmaker Josh Aronson to Huberman's single-minded dedication and perseverance.

A native of Poland, Huberman was a musical child prodigy who relentlessly driven by his father became a world-renowned violinist. Disillusioned by World War I, Huberman quit at the height of his fame to broaden his education at the Sorbonne in Paris and became an ardent advocate of a pan-European union.

With the rise of Hitler, and seeing worse to come, he set about forming a world-class orchestra in a yet largely barren land, far from the coffeehouses and opera houses of Vienna or Budapest.

In 1936, facing a critical shortfall of $80,000 to launch his venture, Huberman enlisted an amateur violinist named Albert Einstein, and together they raised the sum at one benefit dinner in New York.

For the orchestra’s inaugural concert under the great Italian conductor and ardent anti-fascist Arturo Toscanini, 100,000 buyers — in a total Jewish population of 400,000 — vied to buy the 2,000 available tickets.

Among those paying tribute to Huberman, and demonstrating their own virtuosity in the film, are violinists Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman and Joshua Bell.

“Orchestra of Exiles” opens Oct. 26 in New York and Nov. 2 in Los Angeles.

The New York and Los Angeles concerts will include fundraising galas featuring receptions with the artists and dinners hosted by the American Friends of the IPO. For information, visit http://www.afipo.org/events.

‘Sota Project’: Sealed With a Kiss


The Talmud is on display this month at the USC Fisher Museum of Art, but if you’re expecting a dry examination of rabbinic law and ethics, you’ve come to the wrong place. Ofri Cnaani’s “The Sota Project” offers a daring and even graphic take on Jewish views of adultery, sexuality and sisterhood through a little-known but fascinating piece of talmudic text.

Sitting in a conference room at the Fisher Museum’s offices, Cnaani was excited to discuss “The Sota Project,” though a little disappointed to hear she’d missed out on Los Angeles’ long-running heat wave. Born in Israel in 1975, Cnaani immigrated to the United States a decade ago to study art at New York’s Hunter College MFA program, and though she apparently misses the warm Israeli summers, she’s found great success in the States and in the New York art world, where her work has been on display at prestigious places like MOMA’s PS1 and the Andrea Meislin Gallery.  Her exhibition at the Fisher Museum marks her Los Angeles debut, and she seems particularly excited to be showing a piece like “The Sota Project,” which is so close to her heart.

The name refers to particular tractate in the Talmud that deals with the procedures taken in ancient times when a woman was suspected of adultery. “Sota is a word in Hebrew that people don’t use,” Cnaani said. “The literal meaning of it is ‘the pervert.’ So it’s a very harsh word. It’s not like ‘the adulteress’; it’s not like ‘infidelity.’ And it’s not like young Israelis who speak Hebrew know what it means; they don’t really use the word.

“This specific story is a story about two sisters who look alike. One was married in one town; the other, in another town.  And then the husband of one of them suspected his wife was cheating on him,” Cnaani explained. “Her husband wanted to take her to Jerusalem to drink from the bitter waters.”

The bitter waters ordeal was a process that was supposed to reveal whether a woman had cheated on her husband. A suspected woman would be taken to the Temple in Jerusalem, where the priests would concoct a bitter-waters potion from, among other things, ashes from the Temple, and ink used to write Torah scrolls.  The woman would drink the potion, and, if she was guilty, she “very literally explodes from the location of the sin, which is her abdomen,” Cnaani said. And, if innocent, she’d be blessed with a son in 10 months’ time.

“There’s this element of theatrical punishment,” Cnaani said.  “It’s a very literal punishment, super grotesque.” 

Still from Ofri Cnaani’s “The Sota Project,” video installation, 2011. Photo courtesy of USC Fisher Museum of Art

In the story of the two sisters, though, the sisters come up with a plan to get around the bitter-waters test. “I usually say this is where Hollywood kicks in,” Cnaani said, chuckling.  The sisters trade places. The innocent sister goes through the ordeal and is found pure. It looks like they’re going to get away with the deception, but the sisters meet up afterward and they kiss on the lips. “And it says because she smelled from the bitter water … she died on the spot,” Cnaani said of the guilty sister.

“I think it’s a very beautiful story, and for me it was, from the beginning, a story about sisterhood, about two young women who understand the system, but kind of, in English you’d say ‘work the system,’ or make the system work against itself. And it’s a story that ends sealed with a kiss.”

Cnaani also acknowledges that “it’s a very problematic story.” It isn’t even particularly Jewish in many ways, she said. “It’s a very Hellenistic story of the pages of the Talmud.  She’s trying to avoid her destiny, but punishment finds her … it’s dark; it’s grotesque.”

Cnaani often makes video installations, so she decided that she wanted to bring the story of the sisters to life with her own unique interpretation. “The projection covers all four walls from floor to ceiling, and the story develops not only in time — it’s 20-something minutes long — but also in the form of a spatial narrative … the space actually generates the story.”

The work uses nearly a dozen projectors to form an immersive, kinetic film that unfolds around you and includes dialogue, music and text along with visual projections. The movement forces the viewer to become an active participant in the story, following the sisters as they move along, and even across, the walls.  

“I looked at a lot of different forms in art history that use visual storytelling — mainly murals, because this is really a moving mural,” Cnaani said of “The Sota Project.” “It’s very not-cinematic, in a way.  There’s no close-up, no shot-reaction shot. It’s much more pictorial, even theatrical.”

Selma Holo, the Fisher Museum’s director, sees a lot to admire in Cnaani’s approach. “She is without question an important, young contemporary artist on the international art scene.  But she’s not afraid, because of the way things have moved in the world, to be able to plumb her own history, the Jewish roots of it all. And that’s a change from when the artists all wanted to be international, and barely show, in a way, where they came from,” Holo said.

Another factor working in favor of the exhibition was its sponsorship by the Philip and Muriel Berman Foundation. Cnaani is the granddaughter of noted Israeli sculptor Yehiel Shemi (he died in 2003), one of whose major patrons was the late Philip Berman. Berman’s daughter, Nancy, now the head of the foundation, was struck by Cnaani’s work and decided to fund the exhibition. Additional funding was provided by the Six Points Fellowship, a grant given to emerging Jewish artists.

For Cnaani, who grew up fiercely secular on a kibbutz in Israel, the chance to engage with talmudic text is a special treat. “For various historical and political reasons, a lot of the ancient or classic corpus is being held and mainly actively studied by Orthodox people, and [has been] missing from the cultural identity, or the intellectual cultural identity of the secular intelligentsia.”

Cnaani subscribes to the famous view of David Ben-Gurion that Orthodox Judaism and secular Judaism are “two fully loaded wagons” and that Jewish philosophy and classical texts belong to both worlds.

As a feminist, Cnaani knew that she’d have to deal with the issue of the Sota in a different way. “My good friend and teacher Ruth Calderon, who is a Talmud expert, wrote about this text, and she stopped before the kiss. She said, “They’re my sisters; I’m not ready to kill them because they had another man.”

But sometimes artistic integrity and theatricality get in the way of happy endings. “For me the story is sealed with a kiss, and that’s part of what it is, and I don’t want to kill that,” Cnaani said. “I usually tell her, you’re kind of saving them, but killing the drama.  I want them to kiss again.”

“The Sota Project” is on display at USC’s Fisher Museum of Art through Dec. 1. For information about the Fisher Museum,  visit fisher.usc.edu or call (213) 740-4561.

Surviving a Survivor


It’s an age-old, common dilemma faced by adult children of aging parents: What is the right thing to do when those parents begin to lose their faculties? That theme is at the heart of “Surviving Mama,” by playwright Sonia Levitin, which opens Oct. 12 at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica.

“When you have an aging parent and you have to make a decision, it can’t just be a cookie-cutter decision,” Levitin said in an interview. “You have to take into account everything about that person — their early life, what they endured, their personality and how they are going to react. What’s going to be the next step for them? And people are very different. Almost everyone I talk to has an aging parent, and I hear many different stories — of sibling rivalries coming out, some parents going on their own, making a plan; others a little resistant.” 

Levitin’s play traces the life of Marlena, called Mama (Arva Rose as the older Marlena, Gina Manziello as her younger self), who, when we first meet her, is a feisty, independent woman of German-Jewish heritage in her mid-80s. She has almost set her apartment on fire and is displaying other signs of encroaching dementia. Her youngest daughter, Anne (Manziello, in a dual role) continually clashes with her middle daughter, Stella (Sharon Rosner), over whether to put Mama in a home, and it is clear Mama resists the idea with all her might.

Much of the action is shown in flashback, as we revisit significant events in Marlena’s life. The story reverts to Germany in 1923, when, at the age of 26, she exhibits the strength and resolve that will carry her through life by defying her autocratic father, learning a profession, and marrying the charming, flamboyant Gustav (Peter Lucas). Fifteen years later, with the advent of Nazism, Gustav flees to Cuba, and Marlena escapes to Switzerland with their three young daughters, where they are helped by a priest who enlists the aid of a Catholic family.

The following year, Marlena, the girls and Gustav reunite in America, and Gustav, who is a designer, goes into the shmatte business. But he is a womanizer, and Marlena endures an unhappy marriage.  

After Gustav dies, Marlena falls in love and has a short-lived relationship with another man as the dementia overtakes her.

Levitin based the work on her own late mother’s life, incorporating memories her mother related, as well as on her own recollections, some of which go back to her days as a young child in Nazi Germany.

“I remember that Hitler parade that I refer to in the play. It was very frightening.  I remember scattered things. I remember being in Switzerland.”

Levitin said she also remembers how impoverished she, her mother and her sisters were in Switzerland. “My mother wasn’t allowed to work because she wasn’t a citizen, and you had to be a citizen. She was willing to do anything, and she was absolutely destitute. She went to an agency that was supposed to help refugees, and they told her to go back to Germany. She did go to a rabbi, and he found families for her who were not Jewish but would take the children.” 

Once in America, Levitin’s mother, who had been raised in a beautiful home, with a nanny and maids, still struggled. “She had to work,” Levitin recalled, “and she had to work at very grimy jobs, cleaning other people’s houses, scrubbing the floor, after hours, in a restaurant. This is a woman who came from a well-to-do family.

“My mother’s experience has had an effect on my children, in that they understood her independence and her courage,” Levitin added.

Levitin recalls that just as the character of Anne, her counterpart in the script, is in denial about Marlena’s dementia, she herself could never acknowledge her mother’s mental deterioration. 

“Anne says in the play, ‘You know, I haven’t even said it to myself.’ And it was gradual, and the truth is, I never said it until this woman came over to assess her, the woman who ran the group home, who was lovely. She met my mother, and we talked. I remember it was outside on the lawn, and my mother went in for a sweater or something, and the woman said, ‘Well, she’s going to fit right in. They’re all demented.’ It was like the bottom had just dropped out. Yes, I knew, but I didn’t know. I had managed her; I really had.”

The character of Marlena as an old woman shares her life story with the viewer at key moments in the play, coming to the apron of the stage to address the audience directly. Those segments transition into flashbacks, and, for director Doug Kaback, they represent Marlena’s growing isolation.

“Her mind is drifting to the events of her past, and I think what she’s really analyzing and experiencing in a way, because we bring these events to life, is a sort of validation of the things that she did to save her children and herself, to hold on to a marriage that was proving very fateful and without passion. Her arc is to come to terms with that and to recognize that, even though she sometimes has a caustic character, she has tremendous love and value, and has accomplished really heroic things in her lifetime.”

But, Kaback added, she is burdened by a lifelong sense of guilt.

“She carries such a huge weight, and this terrible horror of what she experienced getting out of Nazi Germany, and the fact that so many loved ones remained, and that she couldn’t help them, and the tragedy of their early deaths, is something that she just can’t quite make whole for herself.  Consequently, she drifts more and more internally, into a world of loss, and she’s pulling back from life in a way.” 

Rose, who plays Marlena, believes that her character’s guilt over having left her contentious mother, Lucie (also played by Rose), in Germany as the Nazis were taking power is pivotal.

“It creates a deep sadness, a great defensiveness and a depression that is not uncommon in many Eastern European Jews,” Rose said. “We come to guilt easily. She didn’t just abandon her mother. She abandoned her mother knowing, in her gut, that she was abandoning her to something terrible. So, even though she begged her to leave, she knew that she could have done more, and that it was, to a certain degree, self-serving that she didn’t do more.”

Rose was particularly drawn to this material because of its ethnic underpinnings. “I’m very Jewish. Most of the theater that I do, that is of consequence and that matters to me, often has a Jewish theme. I am not just an actor. For the last 25 years, I’ve been a family therapist, and the combination of the family dynamics, the Jewishness of the plot and the characters, made it completely irresistible to me.”

Rose would like the play to transmit a sense of what she calls “the incredible bond between family members, particularly mothers and daughters.”

And Kaback hopes that “whatever station we’re at in life, we’re able to see in Marlena a reflection of ourselves, and a recognition that we, too, have to confront some very challenging and difficult questions as we grow older.”

As for what Levitin would like audiences to take from her play: “I want them to come away with a feeling of the fullness of life, the triumph of life and of people over all the things that can befall them. I want them to become encouraged by the show, and to say, ‘Wow! That was a woman who knew how to live.’ ”

 


“Surviving Mama”

Edgemar Center for the Arts, on the Main Stage

2437 Main St., Santa Monica, CA 90405

Oct. 12- Nov. 18

Fri. at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 and and 8 pm, Sunday at 5 pm.

Tickets:  $34.99

RESERVATIONS: (310) 392-7327

ONLINE TICKETING: http://www.edgemarcenter.org/ 

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Sept. 29 – Oct. 5, 2012


[SAT SEPT 29]

MUSEUM DAY LIVE!

Smithsonian magazine hosts a free day at participating museums, including the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, The Grammy Museum, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Pasadena Museum of California Art and the Autry National Center. Zimmer Children’s Museum, which is closed on Saturdays, will be open for Museum Day on Sunday, Sept. 30. Sat. Free (registration required, ticket information on Web site). Various times, locations. smithsonianmag.com/museumday.


[SUN SEPT 30]

 SUKKOT PICNIC

Join the Israeli Leadership Council, MATI and Mitchabrim — organizations dedicated to strengthening the Israeli-American community — at this folksy Sukkot festival. Arts and crafts, Israeli folk dancing, sukkah decorating, kids’ activities and more make it a can’t-miss event for the entire family. Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Free. Warner Center Park, 5800 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 466-6454. jewishla.org.

11TH ANNUAL WEST HOLLYWOOD BOOK FAIR

West Hollywood’s celebration of the written word features more than 220 authors and artists. Speakers include “Saturday Night Live” alum Rachel Dratch (“Girl Walks Into a Bar”) and comedy writer David Misch (“Funny: The Book”); Journal columnist Bill Boyarsky (“Inventing L.A.”); political commentators Robert Scheer (“The Great American Stickup”) and Nancy L. Cohen (“Delirium”); novelists David Brin (“Existence”), Seth Greenland (“The Angry Buddhist”), Tod Goldberg (“Living Dead Girl”), Gregg Hurwitz (“The Survivor”), Stephen Jay Schwartz (“Beat”) and Jerry Stahl (“Pain Killers”); and children’s writers Amy Goldman Koss (“Side Effects”) and Eugene Yelchin (“Breaking Stalin’s Nose”). Attend writer’s workshops, poetry readings and performances, and peruse more than 75 exhibitor booths featuring publishers, booksellers and writing groups. Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Free (includes admission, shuttle and parking). West Hollywood Library and West Hollywood Park, 625 N. San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood. westhollywoodbookfair.org.


[MON OCT 1]

“VOICES UNITED”

Comedian Sarah Silverman joins actor Russell Brand and singer-songwriters Catie Curtis and Mary Gauthier in headlining this Americans United concert in support of church-state separation. Mon. 7:30 p.m. $25 (standing room), $50 (rear orchestra), $100 (front orchestra). El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. au.org/voices-united-la-tickets.


[TUE OCT 2]

MAC MILLER

YouTube clips of the Pittsburgh native effortlessly freestyling are viral classics, and his records — including debut album “Blue Slide Park” — showcase Miller’s knack for lacing his rhymes with humor. The 20-year-old rapper makes a stop in Los Angeles as part of his Macadelic Tour. Hip-hop act Travis Porter and rapper YG also perform. Tue. 8 p.m. $30-$35. Nokia Theatre, L.A. Live, 777 Chick Hearn Court, Los Angeles. (213) 763-6030. nokiatheatrelalive.com.


[THU OCT 4]

“IS ALTRUISM A WONDER DRUG?”

David Levinson, Big Sunday executive director and author of “Everybody Helps, Everybody Wins,” joins bioethicist Stephen Post (“The Hidden Gifts of Helping”) and Stanford University School of Medicine neurosurgery professor James Doty in a discussion about the latest in medical science and altruism. They draw on recent studies that found that frequent volunteering among older adults led to reduced risk of an early death, and that nonvolunteers were more likely than volunteers to experience a major illness. Moderated by Lisa Aliferis, editor of KQED health policy and public health blog “State of Health.” Thu. 7:30 p.m. Free. Goethe-Institut Los Angeles, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. zocalopublicsquare.org.

“RECOVERED VOICES”

L.A. Opera music director James Conlon’s concert series restores two generations of composers that were wiped off the map by the Third Reich. Tonight’s chamber music concert features performances of lost works by Austrian composers Alexander von Zemlinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Franz Schreker; and Czech composer and pianist Erwin Schulhoff. Pacific Trio and friends accompany Conlon. Thu. 7:30 p.m. $37-$65. Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. (310) 434-3200. thebroadstage.com.

 

“UNAUTHORIZED: THE HARVEY WEINSTEIN PROJECT”

Documentarian Barry Avrich’s latest film offers an unflinching portrait of Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of the Weinstein Co. and Miramax Films. Avrich turns to Martin Scorsese, James Ivory, John Irving and others to examine the influence that Weinstein holds in Hollywood. A post-screening Q-and-A with Avrich follows. Thu. 7:30 p.m. $10 (general), $7 (LACMA members, seniors, students). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 857-6000. lacma.org.

Artist Daniel J. Martinez provokes religion, politics to incite insight


Daniel Joseph Martinez has a question, or, rather, he wants you to have one. Well-known as one of the art world’s favorite provocateurs, the Los Angeles native and resident has brought his unique brand of art-as-conversation-piece to Culver City’s Roberts & Tilton Gallery for his first L.A. gallery exhibition in a decade, “I Am a Verb.” But why is Martinez, a non-Jewish artist, getting coverage in the Jewish Journal?  Well that’s simple, really; one of the works he made for the show is a series of photos of a hunchbacked, masked man with the Shema tattooed on his chest, along with a Muslim prayer inscribed in Arabic on one arm and a Catholic prayer in Latin on the other.

“This show is … a constellation of gestures … that are both philosophical and poetic, but yet use very disparate languages to attempt to question the state of who we are as human beings, and to question the time that we live in,” said Martinez on a recent Friday morning, strolling through the installation of his work. “It’s sort of like a series of haiku.”

Martinez has been active in the art world for more than 30 years, but he first rose to prominence in the early 1990s after making a lapel pin, of the sort often used for museum visitors, which was distributed to all attendees of the 1993 Whitney Biennial in New York. A simple inscription on the pin read, “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be White,” and it was worn by visitors of all races and ethnicities — including white — while viewing the rest of the art in the exhibition. Martinez thereby made everyone participants in his questioning reality, and he used language that was specifically intended to provoke the status quo in a zeitgeist consumed by political correctness.

Since then, Martinez has continued to challenge his viewers, and he’s spoken often about how his upbringing in the tumultuous Los Angeles of the 1960s influenced his views on multiculturalism and the notion of who is the outsider. Born in 1957, Martinez has by now become a fixture in the international art scene, his work included in museum collections worldwide.

Upon entering Roberts & Tilton, you’re confronted first by a large, white room, where the sound of Muslim prayers echoes throughout. From one wall, an abstract, sculptural mirror juts out; on another, a crookedly hanging police shield displays a strange manifesto scrawled across it that references both butter and betrayal; and, finally, across the room, the display of four massive photographs of the strange, hunchbacked, masked male figure.

At first glance, this collection of objects couldn’t be more disparate — in their media, subject matter and style — but Martinez is quick to explain the reasoning behind their juxtaposition. “There’s some attempt here to put a series of different kinds of works that take iconic or institutional positions from the society and compress those together.”  

It’s easy to see how the police shield, the Arabic music and the religion-tattooed hunchback follow this line of thought, but the abstract mirror takes a little more explanation. A quick trip to the adjacent room reveals that what once looked like a pedestal with a mirror on it randomly jutting from a wall is actually a replica of the base of the Statue of Liberty, looking as if it had been forced through the wall and become stuck there. 

“A Little Liberty, 2012” 18-karat gold glazed ceramic.

“The same sculpture, which is the Statue of Liberty on one side, looks like completely abstract minimalist gesture,” Martinez said, explaining his trick. “The Statue of Liberty pierces the wall; it’s been toppled. You think of the monuments of Lenin, you think of the monuments of any empire that is in ruins or in decline, or [where] something has changed, those monuments get toppled.”

Liberty’s extinguished torch reaches out toward the neon lights of two signs on a wall opposite that blare “We Buy Gold” and “Facial Waxing,” the light and language of the streets. “I’m not sure what the Statue of Liberty represents today other than a tourist attraction,” Martinez said. “A lot of what we do, and a lot of what has meaning, gets turned into entertainment.”

Walking back around to the other side of the wall, Martinez pointed to the mirrored base of the statue. “When you look at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty, which is upside down, what do you see? You see light,” said Martinez, pointing to the reflection of the sunlight and ceiling lights in the upward facing mirror. “You see the light. It’s a reflection of light. It’s a reflection of purity, right, but yet it’s also pornographic, we’re looking up her dress,” he said, speaking of the statue as if it depicted a real human being and not just an iconic symbol. In the process of upending the sculpture, he has turned its meaning upside-down as well: “We’re looking at the bottom, we’re looking at something that was repressed, something that was buried, something that was compressed into the earth, that was never seen. We only see the iconic symbol of what it was supposed to represent.”

The most interesting portion of Martinez’s exhibition, and certainly the most Jewish part, is his hunchback photos. “These are all me,” Martinez explained of the large photos, which depict him in heavy prosthetics and makeup. “I used my own physical body as another form of landscape, because this is like a landscape.” 

There is something undeniably topographical about the hunch on Martinez’s back, which he says took hours of special-effects makeup to achieve. But it’s clearly the simple faux tattoos on the figure’s front that make the most provocative statement. Through the prayers from all three Abrahamic faiths, Martinez’s hunchback brings the three traditions together on one deformed body.

“The attempt is not to get into the theological or political or social debate that goes on between these three different groups of people,” Martinez said. “It’s not to suggest that any one of them is right or wrong; it’s actually to try and observe it from a different point of view.

“I mean, do we believe in God?” He asked. “What is our spiritual self? How do we nourish that? How do we exist today?”

Such questions excite Martinez. To him, the idea of in-your-face, statement art, with too didactic a message is a little boring these days. “I don’t know if people respond well to that anymore,” he said. 

Martinez wants people who come to see his work simply to be open to possibilities and to find their own interpretations. “I wish that people would come and look and just take a second to think about things that are going on right now, at this very minute, everywhere around them, and somehow reconsider; they don’t have to change their mind.”

But if Martinez seems passive about his work, that’s not so. “I don’t think the work is neutral … and I don’t think it’s passive either … because if it was passive, I’m really not sure why I would do it. And it’s not neutral because neutrality then suggests that I don’t have an opinion, and I think it’s fairly clear there’s an opinion in the room.

“Am I really here only to decorate or do I have another kind of responsibility to speak to the tenets of the time?” Martinez asked. In the context of his work, it is instantly clear that the question was meant to be rhetorical.

Daniel Joseph Martinez’s “I Am a Verb” will be on display through October 20th at Roberts & Tilton Gallery, 5801 Washington Boulevard, Culver City, CA 90232.  For more information, visit www.robertsandtilton.com or call (323) 549-0223.

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Sep. 15-21, 2012


SAT SEPT 15

“With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story”
The feature-length documentary explores the life of the 89-year-old, comic-book legend, co-creator of the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Hulk. Directed by Terry Douglas, Nikki Frakes and William Lawrence Hess, “With Great Power” highlights Lee’s Depression-era upbringing, his early years at Timely Comics, his military service during World War II, the dawn of Marvel Comics and more. Narrated by Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber), the doc features interviews with Kevin Smith, Patrick Stewart, Samuel L. Jackson and Eva Mendes. A Q-and-A with the filmmakers follows the screening. Sat. 7-9 p.m. $10. Downtown Independent, 251 S. Main St., downtown. (213) 617-1033. downtownindependent.com.


SUN SEPT 16

High Holiday Food Drive 2012
SOVA needs your help. This Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles program, which provides free groceries and an array of support services to more than 12,000 individuals each month, is collecting canned beans, meat, tuna, dry milk, pasta, noodles, rice, dry soup, peanut butter, toiletries and other items. Drop-off locations include the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles as well as participating synagogues and day schools. Sun. Through Sept. 26. The Jewish Federation, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Call (818) 988-7682, Ext. 116, to find drop-off locations in your area. jewishla.org, jfsla.org/sova.


TUE SEPT 18

Matisyahu
The Grammy nominee appears live in support of his latest record, “Spark Seeker.” Like its predecessors, the new album — Matisyahu’s fourth — features a blend of reggae, hip-hop, beat boxing and spiritual lyrics, but also showcases traditional ancient sounds and electro beats. Expect to hear lead single “Sunshine” as well as other new tracks, and older material off of albums “Light” and “Youth,” during tonight’s performance. Opening bands include reggae-rock ensembles Dirty Heads and Pacific Dub. Tue. 6:30 p.m. $27.50. Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (800) 745-3000. livenation.com.


WED SEPT 19

“Sarin Zakan & Eshel Ben-Jacob: Bacteria Art and Eco-Fashion”
Israeli fashion designer Sarin Zakan, who creates eco-couture clothing that blends science and art, makes her U.S. debut at the Pacific Design Center. Zakan’s work — including collars and dresses — features patterns formed by bacteria. Her pieces will be displayed alongside the work of her mentor, Tel Aviv University physics professor Eshel Ben-Jacob, who is called the godfather of bacterial art patterns. Wed. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. Through Nov. 9, Mon.-Fri. Pacific Design Center, 8867 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 657-0800. pacificdesigncenter.com.


THU SEPT 20

Mitch Albom 
The best-selling author of “Tuesdays With Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” sits down with Rabbi David Wolpe to discuss his new book, “The Time Keeper.” Albom’s novel follows the inventor of the world’s first clock, Father Time, who, after being punished for trying to measure God’s greatest gift, is given a chance to redeem himself by teaching two people — a teenage girl about to give up on life and a wealthy old businessman who wants to live forever — the true meaning of time. Admission includes a copy of the book. Thu. 8 p.m. $20 (Sinai members), $25 (general). Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 481-3243. sinaitemple.org


FRI SEPT 21

Martin Amis and Matthew Weiner
Matthew Weiner, the marvel behind “Mad Men,” appears in conversation with Martin Amis, a master of ironic prose (“Money: A Suicide Note”). A postwar British writer of fiction, nonfiction, short stories, essays and reviews, his new novel, “Lionel Asbo: State of England,” follows the problematic relationship between a thuggish and lottery-winning English uncle and his nephew. Though experts in different mediums, Weiner and Amis share a fascination with the lives of the privileged in their respective works. Fri. 7:30 p.m. $20. Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 855-0005. writersblocpresents.com.

“Abraham”
French singer-songwriter and actor Michel Jonasz embodies Abraham, his cantor grandfather, in this one-man show. Set before his death, the play follows Abraham as he recalls his deepest memories — his childhood, escaping from Poland, meeting his wife, his deportation to concentration camps, and the joys and sorrows of existence. In French with projected English translations. Fri. 7:45 p.m. Through Sept. 22. $50 (general seating), $75 (premium). Theatre Raymond Kabbaz, 10361 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 286-0553. theatreraymond-kabbaz.com.

Filling a Gallery With Faith


As you approach the Barbara Mendes Gallery on South Robertson Boulevard, you know you’re in for an experience. The brightly colored, psychedelic exterior of the little gallery in the SoRo neighborhood doesn’t cry out Jewish art, and neither does the gallery’s proprietor at first glance. Barbara Mendes looks every bit the ex-hippie, from her tie-dyed clothes to her funky glasses, but when she opens her mouth and starts chattering about kashrut and the Tehillim, you realize that you’re speaking to a woman who’s been on a journey to finding her very Jewish self and her Jewish art.

“My life is a thread of miracles,” Mendes said, smiling broadly. “I was always an artist … by the time I got to kindergarten, I was, like, take me to the art corner.” Her first miracle, she said, was that her parents recognized her talent and enrolled her in art schools, where she thrived. Although her parents were Jewish, they didn’t give her much of a Jewish education, and religion wasn’t stressed in her household.

After graduating from high school, Mendes embarked on a career as an independent comic-book artist under the nom de plume Willy Mendes. Her comics, now included in numerous anthologies, show the groundwork of the style, with its intricate details, psychedelic motifs and bright colors that now mark her paintings.

“What’s interesting is, searching for spirituality, look how mystic this is,” Mendes said, pointing to one of her early comics, “but shame on me … Hindu!”

So how did Mendes move from a self-described spiritual seeker who leaned toward Buddhism and embraced hippie culture to become a practicing Orthodox Jew? According to Mendes, it started with a wall. “I was painting a mural on Fairfax, and a guy said, ‘Excuse me to stop you, but I want you to paint my synagogue.’”  

Mendes was intrigued. She’d never painted a synagogue, never really done much in the way of Jewish art, but she figured that because she was Jewish, she’d accept. When Mendes found out the synagogue she’d be painting was the Pinto Torah Center — a Sephardic congregation dedicated to outreach and Torah study in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood — she knew that a strange force was at work. “The Mendeses and Pintos are like this,” said Mendes, weaving her hands together to show the closeness of two of the most prominent Sephardic families in the Americas.

After getting reacquainted with her Judaism, Mendes, who’d had two children with her first husband before divorcing, met her second husband and started going to yeshiva on her own four nights a week.  “I became religious late in life, at age 45,” said Mendes, now in her 60s.

 “Once I began learning and once I attended a year of the Torah cycle in the synagogue, I did a Bereshit mural to celebrate.” That mural started Mendes on a path that took her through painting out Shemot, and now to Vayikra, a mural-sized oil painting that serves as a centerpiece in her gallery’s current exhibition, “Jewish Art in Elul and the New Year.”

Mendes’ Vayikra mural is stunning in its size and detail. Stretching 16 feet wide, it illustrates pictorially every passage of the Torah portion. Everything from the laws of kashrut to the rules about whom the High Priest can marry is sketched out in intricate vignettes. The painting took nearly three years to complete, Mendes said.  

Several other artists join Mendes in the exhibition. Sarah Devora Podolski created two variations on the Star of David. Rae Antonoff shows off some very impressive micrography, creating scenes featuring biblical women drawn by writing words from their stories in tiny Hebrew. Rae Shagalov’s work is mainly calligraphy, much of it drawn from inspirational teachings from different rabbis. Aharon Aba ben Avraham’s work draws heavily from rabbinic tales. And Freda Nessim has some clever takes on God.  

Most interesting, other than Mendes’ work, is that of Yorum Partush. One piece, a sculptural wall-hanging dedicated to Partush’s deceased brother, includes a tallit and more than two dozen real shofars. Partush’s other piece, which references the Holocaust, includes tefillin boxes, barbed wire and working lights, weaving them into an installation that evokes the trains that were used to transport Jews to concentration camps.

“Jewish art is not like contemporary art,” Mendes said.  “Contemporary art is saying, ‘These are my deepest feelings; I hope you’re interested enough to want to have them in your house.’… We’re offering interpretations of the religion that we share a love for.”

Mendes is proud that the majority of artists in this show are women. “Judaism is the royal road,” she said. “However, 5,000 years ago there was a different perspective of women, and I do not submit to that view of women. 

“As a woman-run gallery, you’d better believe I give a voice to women,” Mendes said. “I’m also interested in being a role model to young women because I’m deeply disturbed by the larger culture,” she said, referring to the world outside her Orthodox community.

“I’m a fan of pop music. Some of these songs I just love, and I belt them out when they come on the radio. Love ’em!  ‘Starships!’ ” said Mendes, referring to the hit song by Nicki Minaj.  

“But, oh my God, when I saw that woman performing on the video, I was horrified, because this is burlesque. … It’s fine, but not for my granddaughter.”

Mendes hopes that her current exhibition portrays a much more positive image. “I wanted to start the holiday season going and involve the whole Jewish community in ‘Jewish Art in Elul,’ ” she said, smiling. “Since each Jewish artist is giving a visual expression to how they feel about Judaism … maybe it will inspire the viewer to see that their own take on Judaism and the religious process is also valid.”

“Jewish Art in Elul and the New Year” continues at the Barbara Mendes Gallery, 2701 S. Robertson Blvd., through Oct. 12 For hours and other information call (310) 558-3215 or (323) 533-6021.

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