Lainie Kazan happily goes ‘Greek’ again for comedy sequel


In her more than five decades on screen, Lainie Kazan has played many Jewish mothers in movies such as “My Favorite Year,” “Beaches,” “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” “What’s Cooking?” and “I Don’t Buy Kisses Anymore.” But the Jewish actress’s most famous role is Maria Portokalos, the matriarch of a large and boisterous Greek family in the 2002 comedy hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Fourteen years later, she is reprising the role in the sequel, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” which finds Maria at a turning point. “Her marriage is rusty and she tries to fix things and make it better,” Kazan said, unable to say more about a plot twist the filmmakers want kept secret. 

Kazan was eager to reunite with her fellow cast members, including the first film’s star and screenwriter, Nia Vardalos, as well as co-stars Gia Carides and Joey Fatone, with whom she has remained close over the years. “Every time I saw Nia, I’d say, ‘So?’ And she would say, ‘Not yet, I’m not ready,’ ” Kazan said of getting a sequel off the ground. When Vardalos called to say she had a script, “We were so thrilled. We celebrated at a Greek restaurant on Larchmont,” in Los Angeles, she said. 

For Kazan, shooting the sequel felt “like coming home, really special and lovely. And I think the audience will feel the connection that we have.” 

She said she found playing Maria for the second time “so easy, like wearing an old shoe. I knew who she was, and I could embellish it. I love her joy in life, in everything. She loves her children and her husband in the most generous and warm and fun way. Even the troubles get lost in the laughter.”

The original, much-loved “Wedding” made $245 million at the box office domestically, but Kazan said she didn’t think about matching that success when making the sequel. “I couldn’t do that,” she said. “I had to just be in the moment, and it was a very comfortable place to be. I didn’t have any expectations, and I still don’t. I hope it’s a success, I hope we did a good job — that’s all I can do.”

Kazan also felt comfortable in an ethnic milieu that she finds quite familiar. “There are a lot of similarities between the Greeks and the Jews,” she said. “The way they deal with their families, the emphasis on education, a great love of family, and they give their children a lot, like we do.”

Widowed since 1989, Kazan has a daughter, Jennifer Bena, and grandchildren Isabella Blue, 16, and Grayson, 1. She grew up in a Conservative but not particularly religious family in Brooklyn, celebrating the traditions of both her mother’s Sephardic family and her father’s Ashkenazic one. 

 “We had big Pesach dinners. We had a huge family. It was very celebratory,” she recalled. “I knew I was Jewish, and I was very proud of my Jewish heritage and the fact that my grandparents were from Israel.” They made their way to Manchester, England, before moving to Brooklyn, and remained active Zionists.

Kazan has been to Israel herself, including her few months there making 1986’s “Delta Force.” “It was fabulous,” she said. “I looked up relatives and spent time with them. I’ve been back several times since. I sang at the jazz festival there.”

Today, she considers herself a “holiday Jew,” attending synagogue for the High Holy Days. But it was important to her to pass on Jewish traditions to her daughter and her grandchildren. “My granddaughter is very curious about Judaism and what it means,” she said.

Kazan’s grandmother, Jennie, born in pre-Israel Palestine, would take her to the Yiddish theater to see Molly Picon and other greats of the time. It created a special bond between them and sparked young Lainie’s interest in the stage.

“I didn’t know what they were saying, but I understood. They made me laugh, and they made a big impression on me,” Kazan said. So did her parents, particularly her father. “He was very funny, like Abbott and Costello rolled into one. My mother was very dramatic and gorgeous, always the first one in the neighborhood to do this or that. She always took me to museums and put me in a little theater group at the Metropolitan [Museum].”

Kazan’s own triple-threat talents as a dancer, singer and actor have kept her in demand on stage and screen over the years, but as much as she enjoys acting, she said, “There’s nothing like singing. The joy and fulfillment that I get is so complete. It’s also about the physical experience of singing. It’s No. 1 in my life.”

She will perform in concert around the country this spring through October, with a stop in Las Vegas at the Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz on Oct. 28-29. 

Since 2012, Kazan has also been an adjunct professor at UCLA, teaching a class titled “Acting for the Singer,” and producing and directing her students in an end-of-semester show. Last December, they did a tribute to Frank Sinatra. She also is on the boards of her alma mater, Hofstra University, the Young Musicians Foundation and the California Jazz Foundation, and loves the opportunity it gives her to help young people launch their careers. 

As for herself, she hopes a juicy dramatic role is in her future, although she gets comedy offers more often. There’s an as-yet uncompleted independent movie called “Tango Shalom” with Renee Taylor, who Kazan shared screen time with in the television series “The Nanny,” and she believes there will be a third “Greek Wedding.” 

“Nia is talking about it,” she said.

Kazan also is active in raising money for B’nai B’rith, AIDS organizations and other charities, and will be honored at the Visiting Nurses Association’s “One Enchanted Evening” gala on May 7 in Palm Springs. She likes going there, or to the beach, to “just be quiet and read a book,” she said. 

“I’ve reinvented myself over and over again,” Kazan said. “It’s hard work but I enjoy my career, and, now, teaching. I’m proud of my ability to survive.”

“My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” opens in theaters on March 25.

Get ‘Wicked’ in the Windy City


If you’re not willing to wait to see the Wicked Witch of the West melt at the Pantages, you can always skip down the Yellow Brick Road, click your heels three times and say: “There’s no place like Chicago.”

“Wicked,” the Tony-award winning Oz-based musical is currently playing at the Oriental Theatre in downtown Chicago’s opulent Ford Center for the Performing Arts. The company featuring Carol Kane will leave Chicago for Los Angeles on June 12. But immediately after the touring cast leaves, a permanent cast will take over with “Saturday Night Live” alum Ana Gasteyer headlining in the role of Elphaba, the green-skinned wicked witch. The permanent troupe is expected to play through until the end of September, possibly longer. So if you are unable to secure tickets for the Los Angeles production, which ends its run on July 31, consider a trip to Chi-town.

Thanks to more than 200 theatres, the City of Big Shoulders, as Carl Sandburg called it in his 1916 poem “Chicago,” is fast becoming the City of Big Ticket Sales. Chicago features big-budget musicals like “The Lion King,” “Cats” and “Little Shop of Horrors”; notable playhouses such as The Steppenwolf Theatre (created by John Malkovich and Gary Sinese); and long-running faves, like Second City, Blue Man Group, “Menopause: the Musical” and “Late Nite Catechism.”

A song in “Wicked” describes an incredible day in the fictional Emerald City, but the same could be said of the Windy City: “One short day full of so much to do. Ev’ry way that you look in the city, there’s something exquisite you’ll want to visit before the day’s through.”

More than 2.77 million Chicagoans work, live and play in nearly 100 distinctive neighborhoods, divided by ethnicity, class and geography. Navigating the city can be a daunting, perplexing task. Luckily, Chicago Greeters (” target=”_blank”>www.chgocitytours.com) offer two-dozen excursions throughout the year that allow visitors to explore these “cities within the city.”

The heart of Jewish Chicago can be found in the neighborhood of West Rogers Park, and Devon Avenue is its main artery. Over the years the area has become ethnically and religiously diverse, featuring a plethora of Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern restaurants and shops. A large Orthodox community inhabits the area, which frequents the cleverly named kosher Chinese restaurant Mi Tsu Yun and more than 20 synagogues, most of which are Orthodox or Traditional.

The Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies on Michigan Avenue features something for children with the traveling exhibit, “Every Picture Tells a Story: Teaching Tolerance through Children’s Picture Books” (” target=”_blank”>www.millenniumpark.org), where outdoor concerts, gardens and an ice skating rink bring a sense of tranquility to the urban jungle.

While the views of the lakefront from the ground are incredible, nothing beats the view from the top. Visit the 150-foot Ferris Wheel overlooking Lake Michigan on Navy Pier (” target=”_blank”>www.hancock-observatory.com). Of course, there’s always the tallest building in North America (second-tallest in the world), the 110-story Sears Tower and its 103rd-floor skydeck (” target=”_blank”>www.artic.edu/aic), which houses more than 300,000 works, including Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” For interactive Americana, the Museum of Science and Industry (” target=”_blank”>www.architecture.org), which spotlights more than 50 of Chicago’s most spectacular waterfront sites. Grab a snack on board the ship, or get something really unique to the city once you disembark.

The first rule of thumb when eating in Chi-town: If it ain’t a Chicago dog, it ain’t a dog. The steam-cooked all-beef dogs, which come in a kosher variety, are only authentic when eaten with yellow mustard, pickle relish, onions, tomatoes and celery salt on a poppy-seed bun — never order ketchup.

The second rule of thumb when eating in Chi-town: Pizza isn’t pizza if it can’t be eaten with a knife and fork. For Chicago deep-dish, there’s really no wrong way to go: Pizzeria Uno and its sister restaurant Pizzeria Due’s (” target=”_blank”>www.loumalnatis.com, which will ship anywhere in the country); and, if your lucky, you’ll stumble into a little-known treasure like Joey Buona’s (” target=”_blank”>www.thedrakehotel.com), across from Oak Street Beach.

Turn the corner from the Drake and it’s shopping heaven up and down the Mag Mile with stores like Neiman-Marcus, Niketown and the American Girl Place. Your nose will beckon you to make a stop at Garrett’s Popcorn Shop at 670 N. Michigan (it’s worth the occasional 45 minute wait).

Down the street is a piece of Chicago history — the stone-built Old Chicago Water Tower, the only structure in the city to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. For another landmark, head over to State Street (“that great street”) and spend some time (and money) at the flagship Marshall Field’s department store, a city treasure for 150 years that spans an entire block and comes with its own audio tour.

At night, the city comes alive with its own vibe. Chicago is famous for its own style of the blues and some of the city’s best can be heard at B.L.U.E.S. (” target=”_blank”>www.bluechicago.com). Then toast your vacation with a breathtaking backdrop at the Hyatt Regency’s BIG Bar (chicagoregency.hyatt.com), where patrons can indulge in an 48-ounce Cosmopolitan or a “Big” “Bigger” or “Biggest” beer on tap at the longest free-standing bar in North America.

With so much to do, don’t expect a relaxing vacation in Chicago. But with its culture, cuisine and construction marvels, Chi-town just might make you feel like you’re ended up somewhere over the rainbow.

For tickets to “Wicked,” visit ” target=”_blank”>www.choosechicago.com. For more information on Chicago’s kosher options, visit

Get Me to the Beach on Time


Tired of the same old country club I-dos? Bored with the been-there, danced-to-that-Beverly Hills reception? Why not take your wedding on the road?

At one time, destination weddings were reserved for celebrity vows, hushed elopements and civil ceremonies. Exotic locales meant no chuppah, no rabbi, and no kosher-wine toast. But today, Jewish couples can have their wedding cake and eat it, too. Brides and grooms are getting married on the sandy beaches of the Bahamas and under the neon lights of Sin City, where traditional religious ceremonies are being hitched to romantic getaway affairs.

Nikki Sutker, 27, has lived in Los Angeles for six years, but never thought of Tinseltown as home. She always assumed she’d get married in her hometown of Dallas. But when her fiance, Santa Ana police officer Scott Bender, explained that most of his L.A. friends and Walnut Creek family wouldn’t be able to make the trip to Texas, the couple opted for a Vegas wedding.

“We’re both big Vegas fans,” said Sutker, a counselor at Patrick Henry Middle School in Granada Hills. “L.A. was really never an option, Dallas didn’t work for Scott, and Vegas is always so much fun.”

They are regulars at Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live, and they wanted a Jewish wedding with Vegas flair. On Aug. 8, they will be married in a ballroom at the Venetian Hotel. The Sunday night, black-tie optional wedding will be conducted under a chuppah by a local rabbi, and kosher meals will be provided for their more observant guests.

Both the bride and groom’s guests support the couple’s decision to have a destination wedding.

“Most people have decided to make a vacation out of our wedding. They’ll arrive in Vegas on Friday and leave Monday,” Sutker said. Bender’s groomsmen are planning a Friday night minibachelor party, the couple is planning a Saturday rehearsal dinner, and they will provide their guests with a guide to the weekend’s Vegas attractions.

“There’s so much to do in Vegas — we’re really excited to have our wedding weekend there,” Sutker said. “I just hope I don’t have to drag Scott out of the casino.”

For their destination wedding, Raphi and Danielle Salem chose moonlight over neon lights. Raphi loved the kibbutz weddings he had attended while living in Israel.

“The ceremonies were outdoors and the whole community was invited. I wanted my wedding to have that same feeling,” said Raphi Salem, who runs judaicastore.com. So when he and Danielle got engaged, they looked at traditional venues with outdoor accommodations. Unsatisfied with the hotel courtyards and banquet hall patios they saw, the couple decided to have their wedding at Club Getaway, a 300-acre family camp in Kent, Conn. Guests were encouraged to bring their children, and they slept in cabins on twin beds. Activities ranged from kickball, water-skiing and archery to egalitarian and Orthodox Shabbat services. Club Getaway even provided camp counselors.

“As children we both loved overnight camp, and we loved the idea of turning our wedding into a whole weekend camp event,” he said. “We’ve been to so many weddings where you eat, you drink, you dance, and you spend zero time with the bride and groom. Rather than see each of our friends for five minutes at the reception, we spent the whole weekend playing with them.”

The Salems married under an outdoor chuppah on the lakefront in a traditional ceremony conducted by two rabbis. All of the weekend’s food was kosher, including the reception’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich appetizers.

“The actual ceremony was just a formality,” he said. “What made our wedding special for us was spending time with our friends and family. Having our wedding at Club Getaway was what allowed us to do that.”

Like the Salems, Daniel and Amy Nissanoff wanted a destination wedding, kosher meals and a weekendlong celebration, but they also wanted to be wed in the Caribbean. The tropical resorts they looked into did not have kosher caterers and would only kosher their kitchen if the wedding party reserved the entire hotel. So the Nissanoffs found a hotel — an island — they could fill: They were married last June in Jumby Bay, a 300-acre private island located off the coast of Antigua. The couple’s 90 guests filled the Jumby Bay Resort, the island’s only hotel, and participated in four days of fun, sun and celebration. The weekend included a cocktail party, a beach barbecue, snorkeling, tennis, calypso dancing and culminated with the Sunday night wedding. The Nissanoffs flew in an Orthodox rabbi to conduct the ceremony, a mashgiach to supervise the kitchen and food preparation and ferried in kosher ingredients and wine to feed their guests.

Looking to control the size of their guest list, a destination wedding seemed a natural choice.

“We always talked about having a smaller, more intimate wedding” said Daniel Nissanoff, who grew up in Hancock Park and attended Cal State Northridge. “If we got married in Manhattan, we would have been obligated to invite 400 people.”

With Jumby Bay, the couple could pare down their guest list, and because attending the wedding required a substantial time and monetary commitment, only their most devoted friends and immediate family responded yes.

“It was a fantasy weekend,” said Nissanoff, the founder and chairman of a New York-based Internet company. “And believe it or not, it cost less than if we had stayed in New York. We would have rented a fancy hotel, hired a 20-piece orchestra and bought thousands of dollars worth of flowers. In Jumby Bay, we got more for our money, had a more casual reception and the island was filled with its own beautiful flowers.”

Not every Jewish couple can find a rabbi willing to fly to an exotic locale, so many who choose to have a destination wedding are forced to have a civil ceremony. This is no longer the case in the Bahamas. Five years ago, Freeport Hebrew Congregation President Geoff Hurst was sanctioned by the Union of Reform Judaism(URJ) (the regulatory body of Reform congregations) and the government of The Bahamas to officiate at Jewish weddings.

“I wanted to insure that couples coming to the Bahamas to be married could have a proper, Jewish wedding,” said Hurst, a retired pharmacist. “Not a single rabbi lives in the Bahamas, so I approached [URJ] and asked if I could officiate.”

Hurst, who will conduct ceremonies on any of the Bahaman Islands, screens his couples; they must want to be married under the chuppah, with kippot and witnesses and with traditional vows in English and Hebrew. He doesn’t charge for his services, but asks that couples pay any of his travel and hotel expenses, and make a donation to the congregation.

“How can I charge for this? It’s a mitzvah,” Hurst said. “I am simply helping Jewish couples wed in the Jewish tradition.”

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