Debbie Friedman, L.A. Opera, Norman Mailer and David Mamet
Saturday the 3rd
Debbie Friedman strums and sings old and new favorites from her Jewish folk repertoire tonight at Shomrei Torah Synagogue. Twenty bucks gets you in the door, or splurge on the $100 patron seats for preferred seating and parking, plus a copy of her new CD, “One People,” and entree to the exclusive meet-and-greet with the artist herself.
7:30 p.m. $10 (ages 18 and under), $20 (general), $100 (patron). 7353 Valley Circle Blvd., West Hills. R.S.V.P., (818) 346-0811.
Tuesday the 6th
Time for the last dance at folk dancing venue
This week marks the closing of Café Danssa, a mecca for folk dancers in Los Angeles for 41 years. For much of that time, Danssa was a slice of Israel, or on some nights a slice of Greece, the Balkans or Brazil. In its early years, it was a pilgrimage point for dance aficionados and amateurs alike; in later years, it was a pickup joint for singles or a destination for anyone who just wanted to pick up their feet and move for joy.
Danssa’s founder, Dani Dassa, envisioned the business as an international meeting place, where people could enjoy each other’s culture without thinking about their differences.
“Through dance, people of differing cultures and politics were united with their hands and feet,” Dassa, 78, said in an interview this week.
The renowned Israeli folk dance teacher and choreographer moved to Los Angeles with an entrepreneurial spirit to get others involved in the medium he cherished.
But the Dassas are but half the story. My family, the Blumes, have run Café Danssa for the last 31 years — a decent span by any reckoning. And our family place of business has been Los Angeles’ most prominent and, by far, the longest lasting folk dance cafe.
For most of this time, Danssa’s formula for success was the product of the dynamic relationship between the club’s founder and its later owner, my father, Dave Blume. Dassa used his charm, dance talent and dark, lean and handsome looks to make folk enthusiasts clamor for a dancing place they could call their own.
Dad was his complement, with his Buddha-like placidity and hostility to any form of physical exertion. Dassa instantly recognized the virtues of Dad’s solid business sense and ever-present sense of humor. The two remained close until Dad’s death last March.
Café Danssa opened for business in December 1965 on a nondescript block of West Los Angeles on Pico Boulevard. The name of the business was a morphing of the first three letters of Dani Dassa’s first name and the last three letters of his last name.
Dassa, a native Israeli who’d fought in the War for Independence and the 1956 Sinai campaign, and who was at heart a dancer, aspired to bring the art of dance to the masses, especially to Jews in America.
A front page story in the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times proclaimed Café Danssa’s arrival, and soon after, the entire second-floor space was packed to the brim with elaborately clad traditionalist folk dancers and a bunch of out-of-place Beverly Hills socialites in fur coats.
The ethnic music blared and bounced off the cinder-block walls, one of which was painted with three shadow-like images of Dassa line dancing and the other depicting the biblical scene of Rachel at the well. The décor never got complicated; Dassa hung strawberry pots upside-down as light fixtures. They’re still there.
Dassa offered Israeli, international and Greek nights, occasionally working with other teachers/partners. Because the kitchen was unable to keep up with the demand for the homemade falafel and hummus, he bought property less than two blocks from Café Danssa in hopes of opening a space that could house both an Israeli nightclub for live music acts and a restaurant.
But his new partner backed out of the deal, leaving the Dassas with the burden of keeping two businesses going. It was too much, so Dassa sold Café Danssa to a customer named Lori Anderson to pay off the debt accrued from the construction of the new building. Then his new business, Jericho, was gravely undermined by the 1973 war in Israel, which dried up much of the cross-cultural commerce.
The new Café Danssa owners did not last, and soon the business was up for sale again. On Dec. 31, 1975, my parents, Dave Blume and Carolyn Hester, became the new owners. They had plans to turn it into a nightclub to feature their own musical endeavors.
Dad was a jazz pianist and Grammy-nominated composer, best known for writing the hit pop tune, “Turn Down Day.” My mother was a central figure among the folk music scenesters who emerged from Greenwich Village in New York in the late ’50s and early ’60s. She’s also known for helping launch Bob Dylan’s career by hiring him to play harmonica on one of her albums.
The Blumes were not folk dancers. But then, as my mother said, they also never had it in them to make people feel bad: “David kept saying, we’ll make the change in six weeks, but then that became six months, then a year.”
The customers warmed to the new ownership, and business began to pick up. Dad quickly concluded that Dassa should be invited back to Danssa. The Israeli dance equivalent of a rock star, Dassa to this day still has the magnetism to make women swoon.
Dad on the other hand, was a master of puns and a formidable manager of egos, and he took a laid-back approach to handling the desires of the customers, as well as the competitive squabbles among dance instructors. Dad would tell us not to take it personally when people would try to get in without paying admission, because as customers, “it was their duty to try to sneak in as much as it was our duty not to let them.”
My brother, Howard Blume, recalls that, “on some nights, people would literally be lined up outside the back office waiting for an audience with Dad either to seek his advice, tell him their troubles or just commune.”
Dad, a nondrinker otherwise, kept a bottle of cognac in his desk, which was consumed only as part of a friendship ritual between him and Dassa. The cognac bottle is still there today, only now Dassa has inscribed his own name as well as, Dad’s, Mom’s, mine and my sister Amy’s on the bottle in Hebrew.
For years, Dassa and two of his children, David and Dorite, each taught Israeli dance at Café Danssa. Although Israeli dancing remained the breadwinner for the nightclub, Balkan and Greek nights continued through the early ’80s. Café Danssa continued its reputation as “the first stop for Israeli immigrants when they land at LAX,” and the crowd was a mix of tan, Israeli men in tight pants trying to woo beautiful California girls.
Radio DJ Jimmy Kay brings folksy charm to folkie L.A
A radio DJ might not be your idea of an innovative storyteller, but who can’t relate to the desire to inflict your own personal interests onto the greater Los Angeles listening public? DJ Jimmy Kay does just this every Sunday night from 9 p.m. to midnight on KKGO 1260AM, where he hosts the program “Sunday Night Folk.”
He can play whatever music suits his fancy, but he doesn’t play the music just for his own fanciful whims. He secretly hopes that the historical significance of the events described in the lyrics will touch the listening audience as much as the haunting melodies that weave through the songs.
On Nov. 12, Kay will host a musical salute to American Veterans in honor of Veterans Day. It will feature music from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, World Wars I and II, Vietnam and Iraq. It will also include a 10-song segment about the continuing battle against fascism that exists in the world today.
Jimmy Kay was born James Kalmenson on Oct. 5, 1958, in New Rochelle, N.Y., to two Jewish parents, Lilli and Howard Kalmenson. In 1962, the Kalmenson family moved to Tarzana, when his father purchased the Spanish-language radio station KWKW.
“I was bar mitzvahed at 13; my speech discussed pollution and ecology,” Kay remembers. “My upbringing was not overtly religious; we did observe all the major holidays, and during my pre-teen years we performed the rituals for the Sabbath.”
Celebrating the holidays was of great importance to Kay’s mother, whose own family had escaped from Germany in 1938.
Kay’s interest in folk music stemmed from watching the images of Vietnam on television and being exposed to music from the ’60s, Kay recalls. “I loved to sing songs around the campfire every summer when I went to River Way Ranch Camp.”
Probably the most influential element for Kay was seeing the movie, “Bound for Glory,” which exposed him to the life and songs of Woody Guthrie.
Next April, “Sunday Night Folk” will celebrate its fifth anniversary. Over the years it has expanded from one hour to three per week; it’s acquired more financial sponsorships; and, most importantly, it’s gained a wider audience.
Kay offers, “the music is definitely folk; however, we aren’t afraid to cross the boundaries into other genres in order to compliment a thematic moment. We play classic country from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. We enjoy political satirists like L.A. songwriter Ross Altman. Sing-a-long campfire songs and children’s tunes can be worked in once in awhile as well as a dramatic set of love songs here and there.
“We also like to tip our hats to veterans and focus on anthems of political protest as well as spinning patriotic feel-good songs. Jewish-themed songs, Latino-themed songs, ditties about taxes, dogs, trains, farm animals … you name it, we’ve played it. If I have one rule, it would be that we never play anything which is getting heavy airplay anywhere else; I love to introduce undiscovered singer-songwriters on a segment called, ‘Sunday Night Folk Discoveries.'”
Kay and producer Jeffrey Schwartz (known on air as Jimmy Smart) also commit the most bizarre sin possible by music business standards — they take musical submissions from anyone and they listen to every single CD that they receive. Hearing all this, you start to wonder what Jimmy Kay’s music library must look like. When does he have time to catalogue everything? Especially when you find out that the station his father bought in 1962 is now considered the No. 1 AM Spanish-language station in the country, so boasts its current president, Jimmy Kay.
It’s really no surprise that Kay would end up being a champion for the “underground” folk circuit, because he believes that folk music has always dealt with the “down-trodden.” Kay adds, “my Jewish education always emphasized caring for the less fortunate. I feel a great joy sharing songs that make people really think about the human condition. I love to play music which reminds people of their childhood memories and to expose them to ideas which they may not have ever even considered before.”
According to Kay’s philosophy, the road to freedom is taken not only one step, but one lyric at a time.
7 Days in the Arts
Saturday the 7th
Take a stroll for a good cause at today’s 14th annual Alzheimer’s Association Memory Walk. More than 100 teams are scheduled for the 5K recreational walk around Hollywood Park racetrack, and those wishing to register today are also welcome. Also ambling are celebrities Peter Gallagher, David Hyde Pierce, Leeza Gibbons and Lea Thompson.
7 a.m. (registration), 8:30 a.m. (opening ceremonies), 8:45 a.m. (warm up). 9 a.m. (walk). 10:15 a.m.-noon (health expo, live entertainment, celebrity autographs and prizes). 1050 S. Prairie Ave., Inglewood. (323) 930-6228.
Monday the 9th
Sneak behind the curtain into the life of Pulitzer and Tony award-winning playwright Tony Kushner in the new documentary, “Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner.” Following the writer from just after Sept. 11, 2001 to the 2004 presidential election, cameras captured Kushner’s work on the Broadway musical, “Caroline, or Change.” and the children’s Holocaust opera, “Brundibar,” as well as his “humor, ambition, vision and dazzling braininess,” according to Newsweek.
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Jewish Renewal leader Rabbi Shefa Gold debuts her first book, “Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land,” this month. Described as an approach for using the Torah as a path for spiritual growth, the text has been praised by Renewal leaders like Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Gold visits Los Angeles this week, offering workshops in conjunction with the release. Tonight, she is at B’nai Horin/Children of Freedom.
Oct. 10: (310) 441-4434 or e-mail PeggiS@mac.com.
Thursday the 12th
Storytelling for grownups comes courtesy of UCLA Live this week. “The Moth,” a New York storytelling organization, comes west for a night at Royce Hall titled, “Out on a Limb: Stories From the Edge.” The show of real-life narratives will include host Andy Borowitz (creator of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”), Jonathan Ames (author, “Wake Up Sir!”), comedian Margaret Cho, Cindy Chupak (writer and executive producer, “Sex and the City”), RUN DMC’s Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Steve Osborne (retired NYPD lieutenant).
7:30 p.m. $8-$15. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (866) 468-3399.
P. F. Sloan: does he still believe we’re on the ‘Eve of Destruction’?
“Eve of Destruction,” the famous folk-rock protest hit from 1965, isn’t usually regarded as a specifically Jewish song. Or even a religious one, for that matter.
It’s a litany of anguished complaints about the problems of the temporal world of the time — civil rights marchers repelled in Selma, Ala., the imminent danger of nuclear war, the threat from a militant “Red China.” It struck such a chord with a teenage audience worried about the future that it reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a youthful crie de coeur against the political status quo. It became an extraordinary pop-cultural event in its own right.
But the long-missing-in-action writer of “Eve of Destruction,” 61-year-old Los Angeles resident P.F. (Phil) Sloan, cites his studies of Jewish mysticism as a key source of inspiration. After decades of fighting physical and mental illnesses that ended his professional career, Sloan is back with a new CD, “Sailover,” recently released on Hightone Records. Only his sixth album since 1965, it includes versions of “Eve” and other songs he wrote in the 1960s, plus new folk-rock compositions. And he performs at Largo in the Fairfax district, where he grew up, on Sept. 27.
After his bar mitzvah at Hollywood Temple Beth El, Sloan’s rabbi recommended him for early kabbalah training, especially study of the mystical writings and Torah interpretations in the Zohar.
“It is rare because you’re supposed to be 40 [to study],” Sloan said, speaking by phone from Chicago where he was performing at a club. “My rabbi suspected I was an old soul.”
He studied for about 18 months, he said, providing him with “a greater, deeper understanding of Judaism and its relationship to people.”
But at the same time, Sloan was also interested in rock ‘n’ roll. In 1964, while still a teenager, he and friend Steve Barri wrote and recorded “Tell ‘Em I’m Surfin'” as the Fantastic Baggys. His “P.F. Sloan” persona appeared in 1964, when in response to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he wrote several protest songs, “Eve of Destruction,” “The Sins of the Family” and “Take Me for What I’m Worth.” It took a full year before the growlingly, deep-voiced singer Barry McGuire, fresh from the New Christy Minstrels, released “Eve” on L.A.’s Dunhill Records — also Sloan’s label — and it became a hit.
Sloan feels the song was “directly attributable” to his kabbalah studies.
“The song was a divine gift,” he said. “I was given information about the history of the world through that song — not that that’s unusual in mystical Judaism. It was quite a wonderful gift at age 19 to be given that. I knew it was special and knew it would change things.”
Sloan sees the song as his dialogue with God.
“I say to God that ‘this whole crazy world is just too frustrating,’ and then God says to me, ‘But you tell me over and over and over again about these problems I already know,'” he said.
“It’s an endless dance around this razor’s edge about what God is saying every time I sing this song,” Sloan explained. “He’s telling me, ‘Don’t believe we’re on the eve, I’m not going to allow it.’ And then other times when I sing it, I get the message he’s going to allow destruction to happen. Every time I sing it, I get an insight into what’s going on.”
Sloan’s parents moved from New York, where he was born as Philip Gary Schlein, to Los Angeles for his mother’s arthritis. But when his father had trouble getting permission to open a downtown sundries store under his name Schlein, he changed it to “Sloan” to avoid anti-Semitism.
Working with Barri or alone, Sloan wrote hits for other pop stars in the 1960s, including “Secret Agent Man” for Johnny Rivers, “Where Were You When I Needed You” for The Grass Roots and “Let Me Be” for The Turtles. But his attempts at becoming a successful singer-songwriter like his idol, Bob Dylan, didn’t work out. He says his record company was reluctant to support him at the time and that he signed away his songwriting royalties.
And from roughly 1971 to 1986, he said, he was incapacitated by undiagnosed hypoglycemia that led to depression and catatonia. He lived with his now-deceased parents until they found an apartment for him and helped him get nursing care.
But in 1986, he also started visiting Sai Baba, a controversial Indian guru who claims healing powers, at his ashram. He has gone back every two years and slowly started to recover. He said by 2001 he felt good enough to start performing again. In 2003, for instance, he participated in a tribute concert to Jewish religious singer and songwriter Shlomo Carlebach at Congregation Beth Jacob.
“I’m now walking 1 1/2 miles a day,” Sloan said. “I have a huge amount of energy. It’s like God has touched me and just given me a tremendous amount of love and energy. I feel like I’ve been reactivated.”
P.F. Sloan will be at Largo, 432 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. Doors open at 8 p.m. $5-$20.
Can Artwork Mend Fences?
Before the Beirut airport closed during Israel’s recent war with Hezbollah, a shipment of pillows, shawls and jackets sewn by Palestinian women living in Beirut refugee camps was sent off to Los Angeles’ Craft and Folk Art Museum.
These objects, all exquisitely ornamented, were destined to become part of the exhibition, “Sovereign Threads: A History of Palestinian Embroidery,” where they would share space with richly decorated fare dating from 1830 to the 1940s. The show opened last month as Israel fought Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas near the Gaza Strip border.
While images of bombed cities and wounded and suffering victims on all sides dominated the news, “Threads” offered a different window into the region: a rare opportunity to view Palestinian embroidery, considered among the finest in the world, in what is perhaps the first show of its kind in Los Angeles.
On display are gowns embellished with vivid crimsons and detailed geometrical designs, symbolizing a girl’s maturation and readiness for marriage (muted clothing is reserved for matrons).
A married woman’s headdress from 1930s Bethlehem sports a tall, conical cap studded with Ottoman coins, coral beads and silken embroidery — all connected to the delicate silver jewelry that was intended to hang over her dress.
Other gowns glow with wide swathes of multicolored, iridescent silk or cotton cloth, covered with stitching so vibrant it appears to undulate. The colors include magentas, oranges, reds and golds; the meticulous patterns resemble Cyprus trees, double-edged combs or acanthus leaves and cups (symbolizing health and happiness), among other designs. Five circles on chest pieces from the once-Christian city of Ramallah represent Jesus and the four Apostles.
Additional new works are for sale in the museum’s gift shop, with all proceeds to go toward human services in Palestinian refugee camps, museum director Maryna Hrushetska told The Journal.
“Threads” (which closes on Oct. 8) has proven so popular, she added, that museum attendance is up more than 25 percent. It’s the latest success for an official who has helped put her once-imperiled institution on the map on Wilshire Boulevard’s Museum Row, with well-received exhibitions, such as the current “Tigers and Jaguars: L.A.’s Asian-Latino Art Phenomenon” (through Oct. 29), which burst stereotypes about folk art. “Sovereign Threads” follows suit — but it weaves a story that may raise eyebrows for some in the Jewish community.While the show does not overtly refer to the recent fighting near the Gaza Strip, or to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general, it subtly but unmistakably depicts the conflict from the Palestinian point of view.
The exhibition begins with a map of the region that makes no mention of Israel (it notes “Palestinian subdivisions according to the British Mandate,” 1917-1948). A timeline in the show does not mention the ancient Israelite kingdoms, or the subsequent (and significant) Jewish presence in the Holy Land. Nor does it describe Arab offensives that precipitated at least two wars, as described by an analyst for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The omissions are significant, several analysts explained.
“All this effectively deligitimizes the historical Jewish presence in the land of Israel,” said Yehudit Barsky, director of the division on the Middle East and international terrorism for the American Jewish Committee.
Barsky added that one exhibition sponsor, the A.M. Qattan Foundation also funds organizations such as the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee and Orient House, “the symbol of Palestinian aspirations for autonomy and solidarity in Israeli Occupied Jerusalem,” according to the Web site, orienthouse.org.Even the title of the exhibition — and Hrushetska’s take on it — suggests it crosses cultural boundaries into the realm of advocacy for the Palestinians and their cause.
“The term ‘sovereign’ describes self-rule, autonomy, and independence — all still painfully absent for Palestinians in the political sphere,” Hrushetska wrote in the “Threads” brochure. “However, from a cultural perspective, the term takes on a more comprehensive meaning…. The costumes and embroidery on display are living records of Palestinian ‘cultural sovereignty’…. As they revive a culture in peril, the Palestinian women who create contemporary embroidery in refugee camps are also preserving their own imperiled dignity.”
When asked whether the show is biased, Hrushetska doesn’t entirely say no. She ties “Threads” to a continuing debate among curators over what has come to be called “the politics of representation”: Just who gets to tell a people’s story?The debate emerged in sharp focus when museums attempted to describe Native American history from a United States perspective some years ago, Hrushetska said.
“As a curatorial policy, if I’m going to show somebody’s culture, I will show it from their perspective — that’s the only authentic way,” Hrushetska said. “If we did a history of Israeli embroidery, how would the Jewish community feel if Palestinians narrated it?”
Hrushetska, who grew up in Chicago and is in her late 30s, is quick to acknowledge that she is an unconventional museum director. Her background is in international relations, not art history or museum management. She believes that most people mistakenly view folk art as “quaint, nostalgic or something their grandparents used to do.”
She wishes to help reframe traditional art in a contemporary, relevant light, while promoting cross-cultural understanding in Los Angeles and around the globe.
Yet such issues were far from her mind when she caught her first glimpse of Palestinian textiles 18 months ago, around the time she arrived at the museum. The setting was the ultramodern Venice home of 75-year-old artist Huguette Caland — daughter of Lebanon’s first president, Bishara al Khuri — who is known for her own artwork, as well as for opening her home to salons frequented by Los Angeles’ cultural community. In a corner of Caland’s vast studio, Hrushetska spotted a brown velvet chaise lounge covered with pillows embroidered by Palestinian women in Beirut refugee camps.
Hrushetska, a Ukrainian American who grew up in a house filled with her grandmother’s embroidery, immediately assumed the pillows were Ukrainian.”Even though I consider myself a globalist, I defaulted to my own heritage,” she said.
But she learned that her connection wasn’t completely off mark: Eastern Orthodox Christians (including Ukrainians) reportedly made pilgrimages to Bethlehem, via Ramallah, from the 15th century onward. Some purchased embroidery samples as souvenirs of the Holy Land, which later entered the visual language of Ukrainian decor.
Caland told Hrushetska her pillows were created in workshops sponsored by the Association for the Development of Palestinian Camps (best known by its Arabic language acronym, INAASH), a United Nations non-governmental organization co-founded by Caland in 1969. INAASH provides refugee women with embroidery materials so they can supplement their incomes through international sale of their handiwork, Caland said.
“Because I’m very sensitive to the plight of women in conflict and war, I decided we need to show this work,'” Hrushetska told The Journal. She believes the work deserves to be shown, as well, because “Palestinian embroidery and costumes are known as some of the most beautiful in the folk art world.”
Through Caland and other Arab American contacts, Hrushetska obtained funding for the exhibition (she declines to name the amount) and a curator, Hanan Karaman Munayyer, who has studied and collected Palestinian costumes (along with her husband, Farah) since 1987.
The exhibition concludes with a video depicting women sewing in an INAASH workshop: “Our financial situation is hardly bearable, that’s why we are working,” one participant says on camera.
“After six or seven hours, I can hardly hold the needle,” another woman says.The museum gift shop has already sold almost $15,000 worth of their handiwork, Hrushetska said; a number of items remain for sale, although the embroiderers ceased working during the recent fighting and were unable to send additional fare while the Beirut airport was closed. (It has now reopened.)
So how can prospective buyers be sure their money will not fund anti-Israel causes? Hrushetska responds that INAASH is recognized as a U.N.-sanctioned organization. (The group did sign onto a letter calling for the Palestinian right of return, according to the Web site administered by Al-Awda — The Palestinian Right of Return Coalition.)
When asked if “Threads” could be perceived as unfair, even irresponsible during a time when Israel is at war with Hamas and Hezbollah, Hrushetska emphasized that the show was conceived long before the current crisis.
“But enough of this,” she added. “I know the history of the region, and this and that U.N. resolution, and I’m tired of it. These conflicts will only diminish when we start to humanize each other…. I think that this is an important exhibition for people to see so they start to humanize Palestinians.
“This show is not about the history of blame,” she added. “It’s about recognizing the dire situation that these women are in, not making a judgment on how they got there. It’s saying, ‘These women deserve to be recognized, because they’ve created something beautiful and relevant.'”
A panel discussion, “Culture, Conflict and Identity,” in conjunction with the “Threads” exhibition, will take place Sept. 17 at the Goethe-Institute, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 100, Los Angeles. (323) 937-4230.
Classical Musicians’ Volume Decreases
The conductor raises his baton. On cue, 73 young musicians launch into a heartfelt rendition of “Sabbath Fantasies,” a piece that weaves together snatches of Jewish liturgy and folk tunes.
This is the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra (LAYO), a 6-year-old ensemble sponsored by Stephen S. Wise Temple to encourage the next generation of music lovers. The players, all between the ages of 8 and 18, represent a wide range of cultures and ethnicities.
But because the orchestra rehearses on Sundays on the temple’s grounds, it especially attracts young musicians from Jewish homes. The LAYO is one route through which Jewish community leaders are trying to keep alive the noble tradition that links Jews with classical music.
Russell Steinberg, who conducts the LAYO and composed “Sabbath Fantasies,” is at the forefront of this effort. As founder and director of the Stephen Wise Music Academy, he also works to provide music education for all students at Stephen Wise Day School and Milken Community High School.
Another pioneer is Bryna Vener, who for 28 years has led Sinai Akiba Academy’s popular after-school orchestral program. But many other Jewish day schools that offer elective music programs are struggling to keep them afloat.
Perhaps it’s a matter of scheduling. Students today face mounting academic obligations that leave many feeling hard-pressed to take on an instrument.
Still, Steinberg suspects also that many Jewish parents view classical music as an outmoded form of entertainment. Because they themselves prefer the likes of Pink Floyd to Prokofiev, they are less inclined to push traditional music lessons on reluctant offspring.
There was a time when Jews dominated the ranks of American orchestras, and superstars like Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern were musical ambassadors to the world. The fact that today’s master Jewish musicians tend to have proteges with names like Yo Yo Ma, Kyung-Wha Chung and Lang Lang is one hint that for many Jews, classical music is no longer a top priority. This gives Steinberg an important goal: “I’m trying to build a parent culture that values music.”
Why in recent years have so many American Jews sidestepped classical music?
One answer is that most 21st century American Jews are far removed from the immigrant experience of their forebearers. The Jews who came from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as those who arrived as refugees after World War II, brought with them a passion for music.
Nostalgic for the culture they left behind, they flocked to concerts and regarded soloists as heroes. Their love of good music dovetailed with eagerness for success in their new homeland, making them hugely ambitious for their American-born children.
Sylvia Kunin Eben, 91, was raised in a Jewish enclave in South Central Los Angeles, where “everybody we knew had a piano. Even if you couldn’t afford lessons, you had a piano.”
Eben’s Russian-immigrant father somehow scraped together 90 cents for her weekly piano lesson. In return, she was expected to be a prodigy. Although stage fright derailed her performing career, she went on to create award-winning music programs for television.
A generation later, immigrant Jewish parents were still avidly steering their children toward classical music. Music educator Neal Brostoff is the American-born son of a couple who left England for Los Angeles in 1936. He began concertizing at a early age, often rubbing shoulders with such soon-to-be-famous young Angelenos as violinists Glenn and Maurice Dicterow, cellist Nathaniel Rosen, pianists Mona and Renee Golabek and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. All had parents who were staunch supporters of their youngsters’ careers, and all had strong European roots.
Today, times have changed. Aaron Mendelsohn, whose Maestro Foundation lends musical instruments to talented but impoverished young players, notes that many of the Asian-born musicians he helps are “clawing their way out of poverty, just the way the Jews did.”
Young Jews, for the most part, now tend to be firmly ensconced in the American middle class. All professions are open to them, and they’ve long-ago cast off the immigrant tradition of letting their parents determine their future path.
Jewish mothers and fathers, who in earlier eras might have overseen their children’s lessons, monitored their practice sessions and carted them to musical auditions, are now much more likely to emphasize academics, sports and, in Los Angeles, acting auditions.
UCLA music professor David Lefkowitz provides a telling example. His 9-year-old son has been playing the violin since age 3. A promising musician, he practices an hour a day but also plays soccer in the fall and baseball in the spring.
A colleague’s daughter, exactly the same age, started the violin at the same time. She practices two hours daily, and Lefkowitz doesn’t doubt that by 12 she’ll have moved far beyond his son, for whom music is one of several boyhood interests. It’s probably no coincidence that the girl’s mother is a fairly recent immigrant.
If Jewish parents are less driven now to turn their children into stars of the concert stage, they’re also well aware that music as a profession has become less promising. With the number of quality orchestras diminishing, 200 applicants vie for each open seat.
Some record labels have done away with their classical divisions. Hollywood studios that once employed a full complement of musicians often make do now with synthesized music and the licensing of pop tunes. Alan Chapman, composer, music educator and KUSC radio host, stressed, “The value of being a classical musician to society at large is not what it used to be.”
In a materialistic age, it’s no surprise that young Jews have learned to be pragmatic about their career choices. When Steinberg introduced his students to a professional conductor, their first question was, “How much money do you make?”
But sometimes pragmatism can be idealism by another name. Adam Mendelsohn, a recent UCLA graduate, for years played violin in the American Youth Symphony. Unlike most members of that highly motivated group, he gave up any thought of a formal music career to enter a doctoral program in biomedical engineering.
His father’s Maestro Foundation has shown him firsthand the hardships faced by music professionals. As a scientist, he can treat music as a serious hobby and “play the music I want to play when I want to play it.”
The dearth of rising young Jewish musicians does not extend to Israel, where ongoing political tensions may be part of what makes the arts an appealing outlet. In addition, Israel’s subsidies for artists, as well as its numerous institutes for promising students and its European-based tradition of respect for classical music, also play a significant role.
When Israeli composer Ariel Blumenthal attended a concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall, he was amazed to find an auditorium full of graying heads. At home, the Israeli Philharmonic had always attracted a younger crowd, including uniformed soldiers who get in for free.
One source of Israel’s eagerness to produce the next Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman lies in its thousands of music-loving emigres from the former Soviet Union. The Russian musical legacy also shows itself in the U.S. Sixteen-year-old Simona Shapiro, whose Russian grandmother was a concert pianist, admits that her own budding piano career is fulfilling the dreams of several generations: “My entire family is basically living this through me.”
But most American Jews have to force themselves to be philosophical when their children opt to make music professionally. Partly because they’re short on recent role models, they don’t see how their youngsters can make a living in the classical field.
But many American Jews feel, at best, philosophical when their children opt to make music professionally. Partly because they’re short on recent role models, they don’t see how their talented youngsters can make a living in the music field. One organization trying to help is the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity (jewishcreativity.org).
This small but ambitious nonprofit based in Los Angeles and Jerusalem has, for the past 16 years, worked to promote Jewish identity through support for the arts. Proceeds from the center’s ongoing $3 million fundraising campaign go toward such projects as international arts festivals, subsidized residencies at an Israeli arts colony, and multidisciplinary events at major universities.
More than 400 Jewish artists from many nations and in many fields have been named center affiliates. On behalf of Jewish classical musicians, the center underwrites the L.A.-based Synergy Chamber Ensemble as well as an Israeli group, Metar. It also sponsors recordings, awards prizes, and has commissioned works from such rising Jewish composers as Ofer Ben Amots, Sharon Farber, David Lefkowitz and Yale Strom. The center’s founders, led by board president John Rauch, recognize that from the time of King David forward, music has played an integral role in Jewish life.
They hope their support will smooth the way for the talented Jews of tomorrow.
Dancing the Chai Life
When Sarah Sommer started the Chai Folk Ensemble with eight other young girls in 1964, she had modest expectations. The young women practiced Israeli folk dancing in Sommer’s basement in Winnipeg, Canada, stepping in time to recorded music. When they started performing for live audiences in 1967, the recorded music was replaced with a live musician — the mainstay of all folk performances — an accordion player.
Now, 40 years later, The Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble (Sommer died in 1969) is no longer dancing in basements or clicking their heels to accordion music. The nonprofit troupe is run by a board of directors and has a full artistic staff, including costume designers, choreographers from Israel and Argentina, and a technical team that ensures that Sommer’s Israeli folk-dancing vision stays alive. The troupe itself now numbers 47 — including eight vocalists, nine musicians and 20 dancers. They perform in large venues all over the world.
“I don’t think that Sommer ever imagined that it would be as large or survive as long as it had,” said Reeva Nepon, the ensemble’s administrative director. “It really is unique to North America because there are no other [folk] groups this large that have live accompaniment — you won’t find our dancers dancing to recorded music.”
The group’s repertoire has also expanded. They use the dances to tell the story of Jewish communities all over the world, incorporating, Chasidic, klezmer, Israeli and Yiddish influences to give a terpsichorean voice to far-flung communities such as Yemen or Morocco.
At their upcoming Los Angeles performance, for example, the show will close with the dance “Chasida” — the Hebrew word for stork. The dance depicts “Operation Exodus” — the mass migration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the late 1980s. In the dance, the performers, wearing sackcloth coats, make their way to the Promised Land. There they shake off their coats and hold them high above their heads, revealing the pristine white dresses worn underneath, and a moment of heart-soaring joy.
“The whole stage lights up and it is so explosive, and so powerful,” said Tracy Kasner-Greaves, Chai’s artistic director. “The performers beam and glow from the stage.”
The Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble will start its first tour of Southern California on Feb. 10 at the Fred Kavli Theatre for Performing Arts, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., at 7:30 p.m. For tickets ($18-$54) call (805) 449-2787.
Robbo to Sing at Center Gala
Songwriter and performer Robb Zelonky tangos to the lyrical subject of cleaning up a messy room and morphs into an Elvis impersonation when he sings, "Don’t Wanna Share My Toys."
Zelonky, known to kids as Robbo, brings his family-oriented songfest to the stage as part of the Irvine Jewish Community Center’s grand opening events on Aug. 17.
"I was a theater major. My show is very visual and theatrical and participatory," Zelonky said. "Even dads like it, which is saying something."
Zelonky is scheduled to appear in Irvine after a two-month tour of California, bringing a special show with songs tailored to Jewish culture. He has also produced four secular CDs.
His most recent recording, "Kid’s Life," features celebrity voices including Teri Garr, Linda Gray, Steve Harris, Henry Winkler and Vanna White. Zelonky puts his own stamp on classic Jewish songs in his 1997 CD titled "A Part of a Chain."
Zelonky started entertaining through concerts for kids in 1990, making appearances at Jewish camps and school music programs in more than 70 cities. He has performed at the White House and the Cincinnati Folk Music Festival. His CDs earned Parent’s Choice gold awards for both 2000 and 2002.
After 32 years of guitar playing, Zelonky samples from a variety of musical styles to create his original mix of music and positive messages that inevitably have his audience singing and dancing along.
"I perform 80 shows or so a year, half Jewish, half secular," Zelonky said. "No Christian music though. Just stuff about monsters and owies."
Robbo’s Concert for Kids takes the JCC stage Aug. 17, 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. l
Folk Singer Observes a Pensive ‘Holiday’
Some years ago, folk diva Chava Alberstein discovered therundown immigrant neighborhood around the south Tel Aviv central bus station.For the Israeli superstar, the area became a refuge, a place to stroll or sipcoffee unmolested by fans. The residents were foreign workers from countriessuch as China, Thailand, Nigeria and Romania.
But as their numbers swelled to replace Palestinians afterthe intifada, Alberstein — considered Israel’s Joan Baez — saw conditionsdeteriorating.
“These people are brought to Israel, their passports areconfiscated so they can’t go anywhere and they’re forced to live in the worstsituations,” she said. “You see people crawling out of the most unbelievablehovels. It’s bothered me for a long time.”
So Alberstein, 56, did what one would expect of Baez: Shepoured her indignation into an album. Her new CD, “End of the Holiday” (RounderRecords), due in stores Jan. 13, provides heartbreaking glimpses into thelives of Israel’s estimated 200,000 foreign workers. In her song “FridayNight,” homesick Romanian men sit at dingy snack bars listening to Gypsy music.In “Real Estate,” laundromats and garbage bins are transformed into workers’lodgings in cramped south Tel Aviv. In “Black Video,” an African house cleanertapes tourist sites, rather than his shabby room, to send home with all hissavings.
Speaking from her Tel Aviv home, Alberstein said she isespecially moved by the foreigners’ plight because she, too, immigrated to Israel.
“It’s important to me that the Jews, who were temporaryresidents of so many countries, should be able to welcome the stranger,” shesaid. “I would love to give other people the chance to make Israel their home,as I’ve made this country my home.”
Alberstein, the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors,arrived in Israel around 1950 at the age of 4. Her father, a piano teacher, wastoo poor to purchase a piano, so he bought an accordion and made Chava hisfirst pupil. At age 12, Alberstein was riveted by a Pete Seeger concert andbegged her father for a guitar; he procured for her a used one from a sailor inHaifa. Several years later, she was inspired by American folk musicians whodrew on their ethnic roots to put out her debut album in Yiddish. It wasconsidered a bold, even controversial move in the Hebrew-dominated state.
Nevertheless, the singer-songwriter went on to record almost50 albums and become one of Israel’s most celebrated folk icons, along withartists such as Shlomo Artzi and Yehoram Gaon. “She is the same age as hercountry, and she has captured its growing pangs in her music,” said SimonRutberg of Hatikvah Music in Los Angeles.
Indeed, Alberstein’s dusky alto has often served as a voiceof conscience for the Jewish state: Her “Chad Gadya,” a scathing riff on thePassover tune, admonished Israel for perpetuating the cycle of violence duringthe first intifada. The 1989 song was virtually banned from the radio and ledto canceled concerts and threatening phone calls to Alberstein.
More recently, the folk artist returned to her immigrantroots by writing songs based on Yiddish poems and recording them with theKlezmatics. The resulting CD, 1999’s “The Well,” drew critical praise in theUnited States, as did Alberstein’s cabaret-flavored “Foreign Letters,” recordedin Yiddish, Hebrew and English.
She wasn’t intending to begin a new album two years ago,when her husband, filmmaker Nadav Levitan, showed her poems he had writtenabout foreign workers.
“I thought I was resting,” she said. But then Albersteinread his work, which included “Vera From Bucharest,” about a caretaker strandedwhen her elderly charge dies. “I cried when I read the poems, and I knew I hadto set them to music,” she said.
Alberstein infused the songs with melodies she had heard onthe streets of south Tel Aviv: Romanian strains for “Vera,” for example, andAfrican rhythms for “Black Video.” But while the album is melancholy, she said,it is not about despair.
“It’s about people who are desperate, and who findthemselves in a bad place, but who are struggling to make their lives better,”she said.
The album has been well received in Israel, according toAlberstein.
“It’s accepted with enthusiasm, especially by young peoplewho realize there are so many issues we don’t deal with as we tend to obsessonly about war and peace,” she said. “Because of the political situation … weoften forget there are other people with other problems in the world. Andsometimes they are just around the corner.”
For more information about Alberstein, visit
It may have been a silent film, but Paul Wegener made an international noise with "Der Golem." The 1920 German Expressionist classic — screening April 21 at the Skirball Cultural Center — remains a popular incarnation of the Golem. But it was not the first, nor the last, interpretation of the Jewish folk tale to permeate pop culture.
According to legend, Rabbi Yehuda Loew created the powerful automaton from clay to protect Jews from enemies such as Emperor Rudolf II in 16th-century Prague. The cautionary tale underscores how Loew’s attempt to play God backfires when he loses control of it and is killed by his own creation.
Wegener’s film surfaced after Gustav Meyrink’s 1914 novel "Der Golem." Born Gustav Meyer, Meyrink, the illegitimate son of a baron and a Jewish actress, wrote "Der Golem" out of a fascination with the occult that developed following a suicide attempt.
While the Golem appears only briefly and symbolically in Meyrink’s novel, the legend clearly informs Mary Shelley’s 1816 masterpiece "Frankenstein." Gershom Scholem explored the myth in his essay, "The Idea of the Golem," as did Isaac Bashevis Singer in his novel "Golem." More recently, the Prague Golem was a subplot of Michael Chabon’s 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner, "The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."
Literature notwithstanding, the Golem’s water-fetching fiasco inspired the "Sorcerer’s Apprentice" sequence of Disney’s 1940 animated feature, "Fantasia." The Golem has been a catalyst for superheroes like the Hulk and marked a memorable "X-Files" episode, in which a librarian misinforms David Duchovny that the Sefer Yetzira (Book of Creation) explains how to create a golem.
The Old-New Synagogue, the Golem’s long-rumored resting place, and Golem merchandise still generate tourist dollars in Prague. So what is the continuing fascination with this story?
"Mendy & The Golem" comics creator Tani Pinson believes that the secret of its enduring popularity lies with the character’s identity — as malleable as the clay that spawned it.
"He is so open to interpretation," Pinson said. "And people can seek the Golem within themselves."
The Skirball presents a newly restored print of "Der Golem," featuring a score by Israeli composer Betty Olivero and live accompaniment by the Armadillo Quartet, on April 21 at 8 p.m. $8-$15. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, call (323) 655-8587.
Sunday in the Park
Maybe the post-apocalyptic parking situation was a tip-off. The overcapacity of automobiles surrounding Woodley Park seemed to confirm that this year’s Israeli Independence Day Festival outdid itself in terms of spectacle and attendance. An estimated 50,000 attended, festival director Yoram Gutman confirmed, making this year’s festival the biggest yet. As Gutman told The Journal, "There are so many Israelis who live in the Valley, so maybe that has something to do with it. I never saw so many Persian Jews and American Jews."
At the vast Encino park, the aroma of barbecues tended to by picnicking families filled the spring air; kids rode rides and tossed footballs; Jewish organizations reached out to passers-by; long lines mobbed food kiosks that offered everything from smoothies to Persian cuisine; and Israeli folk dancers cut up the lawn, if not the rug.
The Journal also got to meet and greet readers and award prizes to our raffle contestants, including the children interpreting their odes to the 53rd Israeli Independence Day in crayon for our art contest.
The festival seemed to have a little something for everyone: Sephardim and Ashkenazim; Israeli, American, Persian and Russian Jews; and non-Jews. Overall, a nice (extended) family affair.
As for Israeli Fest No. 54, Gutman was undecided whether the annual event will return to its original Pan Pacific Park setting.
"It was so successful in the Valley that it may stay in the Valley," Gutman said.