Marcos Cohen's stage name is Mor D. Hai. Photo courtesy of Marcos Cohen

Chabad Pesach concert with a Latin flavor

The Spanish word for a musical or theatrical performance is espectáculo. With its suggestion of spectacle, it’s an apt description of the show to be presented April 15 by Mor D. Hai, stage name of Marcos Cohen, an Uruguay-born performer who lives in Los Angeles.

“My show has rhythm, humor, a Latin beat and recognizable Jewish themes, like traditional Passover songs and Sephardi music,” Cohen told the Journal.

The elaborate, high-energy production, suitable for children and adults, evokes smiles and tears, hitting emotional buttons and serving as an introductory course in Jewish history: from the birth of monotheism as embodied by the struggles of Avraham Avinu to Sephardic songs composed in medieval Spain; from the hard-won triumphs of the State of Israel to the tragedy of the Shoah; from the Psalms of David to a musical number that brings Arab and Israeli together.

Cohen said he combines his Jewish and Latin roots in the show, with songs in Ladino, Hebrew, English and Spanish, as well as surprising and amusing stagecraft: desert tents, tinted wisps of smoke, film clips, silhouettes of dancing Chabad figures, lighting effects, choreography, audio-visual elements and Hebrew prayers.

Cohen’s talents came naturally. When he was growing up in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, his Sephardic father played a Hammond organ while his Ashkenazi mother performed with an all-woman Jewish theater group.

Though his parents are fiercely Jewish and Zionist, they are not religious. Cohen, on the other hand, is a modern Orthodox Jew who wears a kippah, keeps kosher and observes Shabbat: When he gets work as actor or singer, he stipulates that he won’t perform on Jewish holidays and Shabbat. “The rest of my family calls me ‘rabbi’ since I’m the only one that’s really gotten into Judaism,” he said.

“The show combines my love for music and for religion,” Cohen said. “There are themes with the particular flavor of Brazil; Argentina; of my country, Uruguay. My Latin- American background is always there, but I give everything a Jewish dimension. There’s a well-known tango called Cambalache. In the version that I do, I give it a Jewish twist. When I did it in Argentina and in Uruguay, it was a big hit. I have a Jewish version of Volver [a popular tango], and I also sing ‘My Beloved Jerusalem’ instead of ‘My Beloved Buenos Aires.’ ”

The show has dancing — Israeli hora, tango, samba, bouncy Chabad twirls — and many costume changes, even different head-coverings: When Cohen sings tangos, he wears a fedora, like the one used by legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel; when he
does music from Bukhara, where his father’s family is from, he sports a beige, flat-top kippah, which he made.

Cohen’s concert includes interaction with the audience, especially with children. “I think that the fact that I don’t have kids of my own makes it even more important that I have contact with them,” he said. Single and in his late 40s, Cohen teaches music at a Jewish pre-school and has been a volunteer with Jewish Big Brothers. “I always try to maintain contact with kids, so I can keep that part of me alive that’s always wanted to have kids… When I lived in Uruguay, I wrote plays for children and sang songs for them.”

Cohen said that 20 years ago, when he first came to Los Angeles from Uruguay, he eked out a living doing a clown-mime act at the Santa Monica pier. One day a little boy, with a dollar in his hand, asked him, “Where’s the balloon?” Cohen said he immediately bought an instructional tape and learned how to shape balloons into animal figures.

“I did very well with my balloon act,” Cohen said. “I went along that way for a long time, dressed as a clown and making animal balloons for kids, making good money, when one day a woman comes up to me and says, ‘You are an old soul. And you know you’re an old soul.’ So I challenged her, ‘OK, tell me what you think you know about me.’ And she said, ‘I know you’re a musician. Yes, you’re a musician.’ And she looked straight at me and said, ‘You’re not supposed to be here, doing this. Why are you afraid? Go pursue
your dreams.’ ”

Cohen said that was a turning point: Since then, he’s pursued his dream of being a singer and performer, in L.A., New York, Uruguay — and, for the last five years, again in L.A. Along the way he started using, he said, “a funky version of my Hebrew name, Mordechai, and that’s how I became Mor D. Hai.”

Cohen clearly feels that meeting that woman in Santa Monica was not a random event. In interviews, he often says his life has been blessed by divine touches.

“I feel a special relationship with God,” he said, “and I feel really blessed to be part of a Jewish community. This is important for me, since I came here from another country, without family, without friends. So it’s essential for me to feel that connection.”

His community, Cohen said, is Jewish life in the Pico-Robertson area, where he lives, prays, and where, this weekend, he’ll perform a show he created and stars in, an espectáculo that he calls “A Latin Revolution in Jewish Music.”

Chol HaMoed Pesach Concert, featuring Mor D. Hai Latin Jewish Band, April 15, at Chabad SOLA, 1627 S. La Cienega Blvd. 9 p.m. $13 in advance, $18 at the door. For more information, go to

Rites Mark ’94 Bombing of Jewish Center in Argentina

Although for most Americans — or even American Jews — the date of July 18, 1994, does not strike the melancholy chord that Sept. 11, 2001 does, for the Jewish population of Argentina it is a date as infamous as any in the history of the Argentine nation.

On that morning in 1994, the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires was bombed, demolishing the building and leaving at least 85 dead and 300 wounded — the most lethal anti-Semitic occurrence since World War II.
Among those affected were many members of the small but growing Argentine Jewish community who now reside in Southern California. In total, there are roughly 5,000 Jewish families of Latin American origin in greater Los Angeles — the majority from Argentina.

Many of them lost friends and relatives that day or were there in the days that followed to sift through the rubble with gloves and masks, looking for survivors and the bodies of victims.

Marcelo Brikman of Simi Valley lost his 20-year-old nephew, Emiliano.
Omar Zayat of North Hollywood worked around the corner from the AMIA building. He’d left Buenos Aires on July 17 to go to the beach with friends, without telling his family, and returned on July 18 to find that they had searched for him in the rubble and had concluded that he was dead.

Zayat now serves as the director of the Latin American Jewish Association of Los Angeles (LAJA).

“It made me pay more attention, become more proactive — it made me work with a “never again” attitude,” Zayat said. “I always keep it in mind.”

Despite the pain and loss of July 18, 1994, LAJA members remain equally discountenanced by the Argentine government’s failure to conduct honest investigations into the attack and punish its perpetrators. Although Argentina, the United States and Israel believe Hezbollah, with the support of Iran, was responsible for the bombing, the Argentine government has failed to hold anyone legally responsible.

There is an ongoing investigation of irregularities in the original AMIA trial. It is widely suspected that the Argentine government of President Carlos Menem accepted bribes from Iran to shield investigations into the bombing. In 2005, the judge that presided over the original faulty legal proceedings was impeached, but Menem has yet to be held accountable.

“The government always treated it as just the Jews’ problem, not the entire country’s problem,” said Mirta Lipzsyc, a LAJA board member who was living in Buenos Aires at the time of the bombing. “Never again. Never again is what I tell myself.”

It was with the “never again” spirit that LAJA commemorated the 12th anniversary of the bombing last month at the New Jewish Community Center at Milken in West Hills.

“Today it is more evident to us than ever that justice will be only served when all those who are responsible — those who planned, those who executed, those who concealed, those who covered up and those who allowed it — are found, tried and punished,” Lipzsyc read at the commemoration from a statement by Memoria Activa, or Active Memory in English, an Argentine organization that promotes remembrance of the bombing and seeks legal justice for those responsible.

LAJA members also viewed an Argentine docudrama titled, “18-J,” a collection of narratives of victims’ lives during the period leading up to the attack and those of their families in its aftermath.

The AMIA building was the headquarters of a community-based Jewish network in the Argentine capital. Many of the attack’s victims were young people seeking help finding a job at AMIA’s employment bureau.

LAJA began in January 2005 with a model similar to that of AMIA in mind, one based around the community center as opposed to the temple. Its founding members were a group of recent Argentine Jewish immigrants fleeing their country’s economic crisis and surging waves of anti-Semitism.

The organization soon grew to include Jewish immigrant families from all over Latin America who were unable to afford standard Southern California Jewish life and sought an inexpensive community-based alternative.

LAJA programming at the Milken center, which functions as a headquarters, includes weekly soccer matches, barbecues, Israeli dancing, body expression classes, singles’ nights, and children’s swimming, arts, crafts and games, among other activities.

The viewing of “18-J” was part of a series of Latin American movie nights and discussions hosted by LAJA for its 400 members.

‘Cabaret’ Glides Into Shoah-Era Tango

Once, when I was on an all-night bus ride in Brazil, an Argentine man sitting in the rear strummed a guitar, singing one tango after another. The slow, emotional music, its lyrics filled with loss and nostalgia, seemed the appropriate soundtrack. But after a while the Brazilians aboard had enough.

One passenger finally yelled, “Don’t you know any sambas?”

Another shouted, “He doesn’t know any sambas! He only knows how to cry.”

Yes, tango is sad music. No wonder that Jews, and Jewish musicians, have been drawn to it. With its melancholy passion, it’s a vehicle for expressing the mournful side of the Jewish soul … and experience.

Jewish Tango Cabaret — a performance at the New JCC at Milken in West Hills on Saturday, May 13 — takes this link a step further. The show uses dance, music and song — as well as drama and narration — to trace high and low points in Jewish history from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s. The live music will be performed by a five-piece tango band headed by Argentine-born Pablo Goldstein; the dancing is by Tango for Three Dance Company — all of whom are Jews originally from Argentina.

Goldstein got the idea for the show three years ago when he saw a recital/lecture that demonstrated the musical links between tango and Jewish music. He then spoke with Arnold Kopikis, an Argentine-born rabbi who had already researched the topic.

“The tango began in Argentina, of course,” Kopikis said in an interview with The Journal, “in the brothels and lower-class bars, often played by Italian and Jewish immigrant musicians. By the 1920s, the tango had radiated out from Argentina to North America and Europe. It became the rage in Paris and London and Berlin.” By the 1930s musicians were blending tango with the popular music of each region. Jewish musicians did this as well, combining it with traditional Jewish music.

Kopikis said that tango was a part of Jewish life even in the ghettos and concentration camps: “There was a Jewish poet who was assigned by the Nazis to gather an archive of poetry for a museum that the Nazis hoped would display the relics of a disappeared culture. What happened is that this poet found a whole series of tango lyrics in Yiddish. He hid them, escaped, and was able to get to Israel with the lyrics. These were not translations. These were tangos originally written in Yiddish.”

These tango lyrics, Kopikis added, harshly describe daily life in the ghetto, and even in the death camps.

“I’m a musician,” said Goldstein, the show’s music director, “and the knowledge that there was this connection, that tango had been a part of Jewish life moved me deeply. I wanted to put this concept together in a total musical-theatrical presentation, one that includes dancers and a real tango band.”

Goldstein also realized that some songs in Hebrew from Israel’s early days had tango roots.

“Yaffa Yarkoni and others sang tangos — like “Habibi” — that inspired a young Israel in the 1950s. So for Jewish Tango Cabaret, I wanted a vocalist who not only sings in Spanish — the language of most tangos — but also in Yiddish and Hebrew.

His singer, who goes by the single name Elisheva, is Mexican and Jewish, heavily steeped in Yiddishkayt. She grew up absorbing these songs, without even knowing they were tangos.

“Her voice is beautiful and pure and melodic,” Goldstein said.

The show’s setting is a fictional cabaret in Berlin whose owners and customers are Jewish. It starts during the early 1930s, the elegant but ominous years between the wars. As the interplay among song, instruments and dancers evolves, so too does the drama. We see the cabaret after Kristallnacht, its furniture in ruins. The scene shifts to a ghetto, then to a concentration camp, where — Kopikis said — the tango continued to be played and danced, in improvised locations, offering a bit of hope in the face of death.

Jewish Tango Cabaret’s only spoken words are a narration (in English) before each scene. The narrator is an old man remembering his life story, what he’s experienced, and the dancers, musicians and singer perform that man’s memories.

“The show is not just artistic, it’s also educational, and for all ages,” said Teresa, Goldstein’s wife and one of Tango for Three’s dancers, who also prefer, for their performance work, to use only their first names. “We want people to know an aspect of Jewish culture and history that’s not known at all. But we also emphasize the triumphant periods after the war, the founding of Israel, as well as a celebration of Jewish life in the U.S. The same characters who are at the cabaret in Berlin in the 1930s, and later in the ghetto and the concentration camp, meet in a nightclub in New York in 1948.”

The show is only being performed on one date in the Los Angeles area, so I had to rely on a taped preview to get a sense for it. What I saw includes part of the New York 1948 reunion dance and song, set in a Manhattan nightclub. There’s bust-out energy in the music and dance, tangos in Spanish and Yiddish, and swing-dancing — an emotional and exciting reaffirmation of life.

“We did the show at the San Diego Jewish Arts Festival and at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills,” Teresa said, “and got wonderful responses.” The day after this interview, the Jewish Tango Cabaret went to Argentina to perform there.

Omar Zayat, director of the Latin American Jewish Association, which is presenting the show, said the show is a natural fit for his group’s efforts. Who better to sponsor a performance about tango and Jews than an organization that caters to Latin American Jews?

Jewish Tango Cabaret will perform on May 13 at 8 p.m. at The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. $25-$40. Jewish Tango Cabaret will perform on May 13, 2006 at 8 p.m. at The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. $25-$40. For more information, call (818) 464-3274 or visit