Kipah-wearing teen set for ‘America’s Got Talent’ semis [VIDEO]


Edon Pinchot, a kipah-wearing Jewish day school student, will be performing in the semifinals of “America’s Got Talent.”

Pinchot, 14, of Skokie, Ill., will be among 12 acts performing live Tuesday night on the popular NBC reality show before a a television audience that could top 10 million. The second set of 12 semifinalists will perform Sept. 4.

Other semifinalists joining Pinchot, a singer and pianist, on Tuesday’s show include singers, a dancer, a dog ventriloquist, an acrobat, a mind reader and a comedian.

Should enough TV viewers cast their votes for Pinchot, he will advance to the finals and a chance to take home the $1 million prize. He has performed an audition, in the Vegas round and in the quarterfinals to reach the semis. His kipah has made him a focal point for viewers.

Pinchot,  who is Sabbath observant and keeps kosher, is the fourth of five children and has been playing piano since he was 9. His grandmother, Ginger Pinchot of Silver Spring, Md., says Edon is “very athletic. He’s one of the stars of his soccer team, and he’s also a straight A student. He’s just kind of an all-around guy.”

The show’s three judges—Howie Mandel, Sharon Osbourne and Howard Stern—are Jewish.

Pinchot will be starting high school soon at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago.

The soldier in the center ring


“Sagiv’s from Israel!” a woman whispered to her seat partner as Aloysia Gavre, director of the West Hollywood Cirque School, introduced Sagiv Ben-Binyamin, a Hadera-born aerial artist and instructor, at a public showcase for the circus school.

As far as he has traveled, literally, from Israel to this Southern Californian loft-like gym space, Ben-Binyamin has come an even greater distance in recent years in his transition from the Israeli army to the circus sphere, a change he refers to as “extreme.”

Ben-Binyamin, 30, served for three years before moving to the United States at 22, and his move raises an interesting question: Is life in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), one of the strictest armies in the world, really so different from performing the high-wire act he’s now doing? Could it be that a three-ring circus and a three-prong attack have more in common than we think? After all, the demands of the circus and the army overlap threefold: physical endurance, group support and all that drama (just watch any episode of “Army Wives” to see the incredible amount of theatrics that surface at least once a week).

Regardless of such surface similarities, Ben-Binyamin says these days he feels pretty far from his Israeli army experience.

“It’s been a while since I’ve thought about it,” he said. “It was physically hard, I think, mainly because of no sleep … especially at the age when you need 10 hours of sleep.”

But it was important to him to serve. He notes that service is emblematic of the Israeli culture, an institution in which all participate: “I’m happy that I did it.”

“I think it’s pretty similar,” he added. “In the army they teach you how to support each other, and in the circus, naturally you want to support and help your fellow performers.”

But the army wasn’t enough to keep Ben-Binyamin away from his long fascination with gymnastics, which led him to the circus.

“When I moved here, I discovered the circus … I was sucked into it so fast, and I found a local job here, you know, grooming pets and animals. I didn’t have the right visa necessarily, but I wanted to stay here.”

Already, he’s moved from Seattle to Florida to San Diego and now Los Angeles. He’s also working for Cher in her Las Vegas show at Caesars Palace and getting ready for Broadway with the original production of “Birdhouse Factory.”

As far as long-lasting benefits, the army and the circus both come into play. In doing stunts for the “Spider-Man” movie as a side gig, Ben-Binyamin said his circus training was helpful, but he also needed to be tough, “I guess that’s the Israeli part.”

‘Purple’ actress cherishes her own colorful history


It’s not unusual for an actress to assume a professional name, but it was quite a stretch for the daughter of Haya Kapelovitch and granddaughter of Sofia Katz to become Stephanie St. James and star in the African American cast of “The Color Purple.”

St. James has the role of Squeak, an aspiring singer of mixed race, in the musical about racism and womanly fortitude in the South, now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre through March 9, 2008.

Taking a break from her eight-show-a-week schedule, St. James spoke with deep affection about her grandmother, Sofia Katz, a Holocaust survivor from Poland.

Katz was a small child when the Nazis swept into her village of Budslav and killed her parents and siblings, along with most of the 175 resident Jewish families.

St. James isn’t sure how her grandmother survived.

“She never liked to talk about it,” the actress said.

At age 12, Katz resettled in Israel, worked at the Kfar Harif moshav, married and had a daughter named Haya, who grew up and enrolled at the Hebrew University.

“One day, while standing in the cafeteria line, she met a South American student from Guyana. His name was James Smith, they married, and had a son, my brother Nicholas, who was born in Jerusalem,” St. James said.

In 1972, the Smiths moved to Miami, where St. James was born in 1974. Being raised in a mixed-race family in the South had its problems, but three years later the family moved to the more liberal environment of the San Francisco Bay Area.

“My parents spoke Hebrew at home, and until I was 6 or 7, I spoke it quite fluently, but then I lost it,” St. James recalled. “I can still understand quite a bit, but I don’t speak it.”

Her father was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist, but there is no doubt about her own identity.

“I am Jewish,” she said, and hopes one day to fulfill her grandmother’s dream that she marry a nice Jewish boy.

Her closest family relationship was with her grandmother, who died two months ago.

“My grandmother was a truly strong woman, who spoke six languages and went to junior college to learn English,” St. James said. “She wasn’t happy when her daughter married a non-Jew, but she loved us grandchildren and she lived for us. We talked to each other every day.”

In 1996, St. James visited Israel, where she has many cousins and friends.

Her mother recognized Stephanie’s talents early on and enrolled her in dancing, singing and acting classes. St. James applies her talents as a recording artist, spanning the genres of soul, rock and pop, and has performed in New York and with the European tour companies of “Grease,” “Fame” and “Footloose,” as well as in films.

When not touring, St. James lives in North Hollywood.

“The Color Purple” is presented by Oprah Winfrey and is headlined by the musical’s Broadway stars Jeannette Bayardelle, Felicia P. Fields, and Michelle Williams, former member of Destiny’s Child.

For tickets, call (213) 972-4400 or visit http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Stephanie St. James

Navel Gazing With Eve Ensler


Some years ago, playwright-performer Eve Ensler became mortified by her not-so-flat, post-40s belly. She starved herself, hired a trainer and watched late-night Ab-Roller infomercials. She compulsively worked the treadmill and even fantasized about contracting a parasite.

No matter that Ensler had authored the taboo-busting feminist global hit, “The Vagina Monologues.” Her preoccupation with her midriff eroded her confidence and her ability to work.

“I couldn’t understand how I, a radical activist, could spend this much time thinking about my stomach,” she says.

Hungry for answers, she created a new solo show, “The Good Body,” which dissects her angst and that of similarly obsessed women.

In the funny and brash play, Ensler recounts her dismay upon viewing svelte magazine cover girls, whom she describes as “the American dream, my personal nightmare.”

She adopts the role of 11 other women, including a model made over by her plastic surgeon husband, a Puerto Rican who dreads “the spread” and a Jew who cries upon realizing she’s got her mother’s tuchis. Then there’s legendary Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown — purveyor of the thin-is-sexy ideal — whose own mother said she was plain.

“I’m down to 90 pounds,” the 80-year-old character says in the play, while completing 100 sit-ups. “Another 10 years, I’ll be down to nothing. But even then, I won’t feel beautiful. I accept this terrible condition.”

Brown’s self-loathing was typical of the myriad women Ensler met while researching the play on her “Monologues” tour.

“It’s given that a woman will despise at least part of her body, and increasingly deemed advisable for her to go to any lengths to correct it,” she says.

Ensler blames the negative conditioning on continuing pressure from popular culture in patriarchal societies.

“What a great way to keep women out of power,” she adds, sounding cheeky and earthy during a phone interview sandwiched between Miami performances. “As long as we keep focusing on fixing ourselves, we aren’t going to rise up and fix the world, are we? We spend an unprecedented $40 billion a year on beauty products. But what if we used that time and money to improve life on this planet?”

Ensler, 52, certainly practices what she preaches. She has parlayed benefit performances of “Monologues” into a worldwide V-Day movement that has raised millions to end violence against women.

Critics mostly honor her intentions and her status as a feminist icon, and a number have lauded “The Good Body.” But some considered its theme old news when the play debuted on Broadway last year.

“Self-help books and cultural manifestos have been decrying the country’s emphasis on irrationally idealized body image and its pernicious influence on feminine self-esteem for decades,” the New York Times said.

Indeed, Susan Orbach published “Fat Is a Feminist Issue” in 1978, and Naomi Wolf wrote “The Beauty Myth” in 1991.

“The show often serves as therapy rather than crusading ideology,” the Philadelphia Inquirer said.

Ensler scoffs at the suggestion that “The Good Body” is lightweight or irrelevant.

“We’ve been talking about issues such as body image and domestic violence for as long as we can remember, and it’s not like we get done,” she says, annoyed. “And in an era when we have more anorexic girls than ever, and when extreme-makeover shows proliferate on TV, we clearly have far to go.”

Carole Black, a V-Day activist and former CEO of Lifetime Entertainment, agrees. “I have so many friends who are heads of networks who always worry about something, [such as] flabby arms or thighs,” she says. “It’s amazing that we still agonize about this, because the men I know don’t care.”

Perhaps Ensler’s approach works because it is more visceral than academic.

“The power of Eve’s words turns something very personal into something very universal,” said Pat Mitchell, V-Day Council chair and the president and CEO of PBS.

After listening to Ensler, even an initially skeptical Guardian reporter came around. “I felt something happen inside — intellectual anger about beauty tyranny changed into physical rejection of it, a less sophisticated but more formidable force,” she wrote. “[Ensler’s] plays are transforming armchair post-feminists into activists, and radicalizing women more effectively than a whole generation of feminist theory.”

Ensler traces her fixation on disenfranchised women (and her stomach) to her abuse-ridden childhood in Scarsdale, N.Y. She says her late Jewish father raped her from the ages of 5 to 10; thereafter he beat her and tormented her with food.

“He considered showing hunger to be gauche, revealing your lack of class and manners,” Ensler recalls. “He said, ‘Only pigs eat bread.’ Our dining room table was all about not eating too much, sitting up straight, which utensils you were supposed to use.

“I spent years liberating myself from the terror of that table. In fact, I didn’t have a dining room table until this year, because it was the set piece for so much anxiety.”

Young Eve found respite in a “nurturing, big-busted, luscious Jewish aunt” who stuffed her with brisket, taught her to love food and “to associate all things emotional and real with being Jewish.”

Meanwhile, Eve’s own blond, non-Jewish mother seemed dismayed by her theatricality and her resemblance to Anne Frank, Ensler says in “The Good Body.” Eve was hardly the paradigm of the “good” (i.e., blonde and perky) 1950s girl.

Enemas, perms and dancing lessons were prescribed to “clean me up, shut me up, make me good,” she says. When the budding performer spoke out, she felt like the 19th century actress Sarah Bernhardt, who was “Jewish and in deep s—.”

By the time Ensler was in high school, she was drinking heavily to numb her childhood pain. After college, she wandered the country in an alcohol-induced haze, living naked in communes, subsisting for months on booze and marinated mushrooms.

Playwriting and activism provided a crucial part of her recovery in her 20s and 30s.

By 1996, Ensler had interviewed hundreds of subjects to write “The Vagina Monologues,” which celebrates female sexuality, decries domestic violence and the shame women associate with their most private of parts. After performing the show for years, she says she “finally felt comfortable with my vagina after talking about it so much.”

When her shame moved up to her stomach, Ensler again grabbed her notebook and consulted women around the world. She met Asians who poisoned themselves with skin-lightening creams, mothers who removed their daughters’ ribs so they would not have to worry about dieting, Texas matrons who had their feet surgically narrowed to fit into Manolo Blahniks.

She also met Indian and African women who celebrated their roundness and helped Ensler to embrace her body.

So after performing “The Good Body” for more than a year, is the artist finally over her stomach? She says she is — mostly. She no longer meticulously diets and exercises, although she does feel the occasional twinge when she sees waifs with flat, pierced bellies. But she appreciates how generous her body is.

“It performs eight shows a week for me. It travels the world. It doesn’t often get sick,” she says.

Ensler was pleased when several older Jewish viewers in Miami “got” her message after viewing her show recently.

“They said they were donating the money they had saved for plastic surgery to charity,” she says.

“My prayer for all women is that they stop seeking to look good and to be ‘good’ but to do good.”

“The Good Body” runs Jan. 31-Feb. 12 at the Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Building 226, Brentwood. For tickets, call (213) 365-3500. For information, visit www.thegoodbody.com.

 

Mitzvah Freestyling


 

Growing up in the Oakland public school system, MC Hyim began freestyling when he was 8 years old. Today, he performs and produces conscious hip-hop, encouraging listeners to do tikkun olam — take the anger and pain from today’s society and transform it into something good: “As important as it is to acknowledge and understand the history of what we might call Babylon,” Hyim said, “it’s important to move beyond it. Though a lot of people are hurting, and we have a lot of anger, everyone needs to take responsibility for themselves — to be aware of how they are how they are negatively affected by our reality, and how to turn that into something positive.”

Hyim finds hip-hop to be a natural vehicle for his own tikkun olam, not only because of the influence of his secular environment, but also because of his Jewish roots: “Judaism is a religion of the Word, of the Book,” he said, “so it makes sense a lot of Jews would get into rap and hip-hop. Our culture is about literacy — about verbal and written and oral communication.”

As a white Jew of Ashkenazi heritage, however, Hyim navigates through tensions regarding his participation in hip-hop culture: “There is always the question whether we are co-opting, recycling, participating in culture vulturism. I think the answer really depends on what your intention is. My intention is to celebrate the positive aspects of communication and a long history of storytelling — both of hip-hop music and Jewish heritage.”

The struggle, Hyim said, is in “how to pay respect to the people who created this art form. I pay respect by being honest — by not talking about things that are not true in my own life, by taking responsibility: When you have a mic and you’re amplified, you have to be aware of how your energy is affecting those ears. What are you offering? What are you supporting? What are you taking away? Hip-hop originally was about a party. You could close the door, have a party, have a DJ say, ‘Everybody clap your hands,’ do call and response. [Hip-hop] was about creating a safe space where everyone was participating. If you’re doing hip-hop provoking violence and separation, maybe you’re telling your own story, but you’re also supporting and validating something that isn’t going to be good for the children.”

Hyim will be performing at the CD release party for “Celebrate Hip-Hop,” during which he will showcase his freestyling talents. “I’ll have the audience call out some words,” he promises, “and I’ll go off on that.”

 

He Sang/She Sang


Take one part Aimee Mann, one part Pete Yorn, stir in some Tori Amos and add a dash of Yiddishkayt and you’ve got two of the newest sounds in rock.

The brooding but sweet Ben Arthur and the edgy yet fun Jennifer Marks will give L.A.’s book lovers a vocal treat when they perform on the Starbucks Stage at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA on April 24 and 25. The two will also autograph their respective CDs at The Jewish Journal’s festival booth.

"Most of my material comes from a place where the most grim and difficult sentiments lurk under a catchy melody," Virginia-raised Arthur said.

The melancholy performer has opened for Bruce Hornsby and Shawn Colvin and played with Dave Mathews.

His morbid title track, "Edible Darling," pontificates about a friend who raises pigs to eat them: "The most beautiful angel/Is the angel of death/Vinegar-throated/Confused and bereft." "Keep Me Around," is a Zevonesque, tongue-in-cheek takeoff on "Weekend at Bernie’s," featuring a corpse that begs to hang out at the house.

"I tend to be into lush images," Arthur said. "I don’t like songs that are too specific, too literal, with just a single meaning."

Marks comes in at a slightly different key. The New York University music business major was inspired by the Annie Lennox/Aretha Franklin anthem, "Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves," and went on to produce several albums independently.

The Long Island redhead’s humor shines through in her lyrics and album titles — her 2000 album is titled, "My Name Is Not Red." Her songs have been featured on the soap, "As the World Turns," and on a few indie film soundtracks.

"I didn’t even realize you could be a songwriter for a living until I was 17 or 18 years old," said Marks, who has won several prestigious songwriting contests in the past few years, including the USA Songwriting Contest and the Great American Song Contest.

Referring to her years of hard work, Marks said, "You don’t just wake up and write a song."

Ben Arthur will perform April 24 at 3 p.m. and April 25 at 4 p.m. Jennifer Marks will perform April 24 at 4 p.m and April 25 at 3 p.m. The two will sign autographs at The Jewish Journal booth from 5-6 p.m. on April 24 and will make periodic appearances on April 25 from 1-3 p.m.

For the Kids


The Good and the Bad

This year, the 17th of Tammuz coincidentally falls on the 17th of July. The 17th of Tammuz (the 10th Jewish month) is a fast day — no eating, no drinking. Why? Because on this day, a few thousand years ago, the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem. Three weeks later, the Temple was destroyed.

The rabbis tell us something a bit curious about this day: it is associated with the word tov (good).

Here is a hint: It has to do with the gematria (numerical value) of the word (Remember: alef = 1, bet/vet = 2, gimel = 3, etc.). The rabbis say that what looks bad now can always be turned to good.

Shakespeare Festival/LA

Pershing Square (downtown Los Angeles) and South Coast Botanical Gardens (Palos Verdes).

July 15-20 and 22-26, downtown Los Angeles; July 31, Aug. 1-3 and 6-10, Palos Verdes . Featuring Shakespeare’s "The Merry Wives of Windsor." And if you bring canned food for the Food for Thought Project, you get free admission.

(213) 481-2273, www.shakespearefestivalla.org

Ho’olaule’a 2003

Alondra Park (adjacent to El Camino Community College). July 19-20. All-day entertainment by performing groups representing Hawaii’s multicultural heritage. Enjoy highly diverse food that represents Hawaii and its people. A two-day event filled with Polynesian arts, crafts, music, dance and fun. (949) 458-0933, www.hiccsc.org.

+