Enter Three Little Maidelehs


For strictly observant women, being Orthodox can often mean putting a kibosh on artistic aspirations. Halachic prohibitions against singing and dancing in front of men means that many women who enjoy those art forms find they have little opportunity to perform.

Enter Margy Horowitz, a Los Angeles-based piano teacher from Chicago who’d heard about all-women’s productions in her hometown from a friend. Intrigued, she started envisioning an all-women’s production for Los Angeles with women not only just in the cast, but also in the audience.

“There are a lot of opportunities for religious high school girls to perform [in school-sponsored, women’s-only musicals], but for older women who have graduated from high school and want to perform, they have no outlets,” Horowitz said. “And plenty of them have so much talent.”

With support from Rabbi Steven Weil at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, Horowitz teamed up with Linda Freedman, a Beth Jacob congregant who sings in the choir at nearby Congregation Magen David. The two decided to put on a production of the Gilbert and Sullivan musical “The Mikado,” with proceeds going to charity.

“The Mikado” is a raucous tale of the prodigal son of a Japanese emperor who runs away from his father’s court to escape marriage, pretends he is a poor musician and falls in love with a young geisha.

“We chose the play because it is in the public domain,” Horowitz said. “It has also got great music and comedy.”

She said she wanted a musical that was not as obscure as many of the productions done in girls’ high schools: “I didn’t think it needed to have a Jewish theme, even though it was for the Jewish community.”

After posting audition flyers throughout Los Angeles and the Valley, the two found their cast of 21. All the women in the play are observant to some degree, and they represent most of the Jewish neighborhoods in greater Los Angeles, including Fairfax, Pico, North Hollywood, Marina del Rey and even Yorba Linda.

“We were so happy to give these women the opportunity to perform,” Horowitz said. “Even if we are not successful, I would still feel that we did something great.”

The all-women’s production of “The Mikado” will be performed at Beverly Hills High School’s Salter Theater, 241 Moreno Drive, on Dec. 10 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 11 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. For tickets, call (310) 726-9333.

 

Not-So-Nice Jewish Boy


When Israeli producers came to America to audition Jewish men to star in “Nice Jewish Boy,” their upcoming Bachelor-type reality show, I decided to throw my hat in the ring. After all, who better than me — a commitment-phobic, ardently secular, anxious, heavily medicated, pale glass of short Jewish water — to represent the American way?

This could be a chance for me to make a real difference in Israeli-American relations. I began to fantasize about my very own harem of glistening Israeli chicks in sweaty army fatigues, and all that we could do to and for one another in the name of world diplomacy. I’d learn invaluable lessons that only these gorgeous Israelis could teach me: how to shoot an Uzi, how to chain smoke and how to have zero respect for someone’s personal space. I, on the other hand, would pass on such valuable American skills as: driving a block away to Starbucks to spend $3 on a cup of coffee, how to say the words “excuse me” and, most importantly, how to apply underarm deodorant.

So, after my initial inquiry and some e-mail exchanges with the producer, I received a phone call from the show’s production coordinator in Israel at 6 a.m. No. You heard that right. Six. In the morning.

So anyway, in my groggy, disoriented state, the production coordinator (who we’ll call “Galit”) gave me my flight information. Coming to, I finally asked Galit, “So, who’s picking me up from the airport, and where will I be staying?”

There was dead air on the other end of the line. Then Galit responded: “Emmmmm, you can take a taxi, no? And, emmm…. We cannot put you up. OK?”

The thought of being stranded in Queens at 1 a.m. had me suddenly wide awake. Galit sensed my panic, and said that she was going to check with the producers, and that she would call me back in a half hour (read: 6:30 a.m.). Before getting off the phone with me, however, she asked if I could call some people in New York and see if they wouldn’t mind putting me up. I told her that I’d call everyone I knew. She hung up. I went back to sleep.

A half hour later, the phone rang. It was Galit: “Did you find anyone to put you up?”

I deadpanned, “Nope. I called 20 of my closest New York friends. Everyone’s all booked up for the summer.”

This clearly went over her head as she pushed on: “Not to worry, because I am a magic worker! I got you a hotel to stay! I work magic, no?”

Now we were talking! Clearly, all that needed to have happened was a little negotiation on my part. It looked like my American capitalist negotiation skills had trumped her primitive shuk haggling.

Galit said cheerfully, “We’ll put you up for one night at the Howard Johnson. This is good, yes?”

Emmm, no! Any hotel that is more famous for its flapjacks than it is for its, well … hotel, I’m gonna have a problem with. I don’t care how good their breakfast is — 11 hours of flying for six hours in New York was a deal that I was not going to make. There was some more dead air on the other end of the line.

“Hello?” I asked.

And then, out of the blue, Galit said six words that absolutely floored me: “C’mon, what angle can we work here?”

Angle! What angle can we work here? I was appalled. How about the angle of human decency? Or, an angle that doesn’t involve maple syrup and butter? I told Galit that either they were going to fly me out, pick me up and put me up for two full days, in a non-pancake-themed hotel, or I wasn’t coming. Period.

Well, my good-old American tenacity worked, because she finally acquiesced. Well sort of. Because when I landed at JFK on Friday night, there, of course, was no one to pick me up. The next morning, after showering, shaving, gelling, and sucking in my gut, I was off to meet the producers of the show.

The questions were probing and personal, and mainly focused on my past relationships. Here is a quick sample:

Israeli Producers: What sorts of things do you do to relax?

Me: I like to drink a little.

Israeli Producers: (Blank Looks)

Me: Um, well, okay, more than a little. Oh yeah, and I frequently like to get in touch with myself….

Israeli Producers: (More blank looks. And then….) What’s the most expensive gift you’ve bought one of your past girlfriends?

Me: You’re supposed to buy them gifts?

Israeli Producers: (Additional blank looks.)

Me: Does dinner count as a ‘gift?’

Israeli Producers: (See above.)

Me: (Slightly uncomfortable, and then taking a bold swing.) I gave them the gift of … the joy of being in my company?

That’s about where they wrapped up my audition. The next day, I flew home to L.A. with a promise from the producers that they’d let me know the following week if I made the cut. A month has passed since, and I still haven’t received any 6 a.m. telephone calls. Not that I’m waiting by the phone for an answer or anything. I mean, who’d want to be on some stupid reality TV show where 20 women fight over you? Not me, that’s for sure!

God, I’m pathetic.

Anyway, a week ago, I read in the Jerusalem Post that a “nice Jewish boy” had finally been chosen. Apparently, his name is Ari Goldman, and he lives in Manhattan where he runs a highly successful vintage comics enterprise. In other words, I lost out to a guy who collects comic books for a living. I always knew I’d rue the day my mom threw out my Green Lantern collection. I hope you’re happy, mom. The Green Lantern could have gotten me some serious tuchus.

Jonathan Kesselman created and directed “The Hebrew Hammer.”

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Latin America Aims for Northern Palates


 

Guarding the entrance to Bodegas Barberis, a family-owned winery in western Argentina, is a small ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary, known locally as the Virgen de la Carrodilla.

“She’s our local patron saint and protector of the vineyards,” said Adrian Barberis, who with his three brothers owns the prosperous winery.

The virgin hardly would cause an eyebrow to be raised in this devoutly Catholic country — except for the fact that Bodegas Barberis, 15 miles south of the city of Mendoza, is a leading Argentine exporter of kosher wine.

Each year, the churchgoing Barberis family turns over 20 percent of its 100-hectare winery to a team of Chasidic Jews from Buenos Aires. For several months before Passover, Chasidim supervise every aspect of wine production — from _fermentation to bottle-sealing — to ensure that the laws of kashrut are observed to the letter.

By now, the winery’s 15 employees are used to seeing the half-dozen bearded men running around checking cooling tanks, tasting samples from wine vats and operating forklifts on the loading docks.

That’s not all. Honoring a Jewish tradition known as terumot vema’aserot, Barberis must intentionally spill on the ground or give to charity 10 percent of its annual kosher wine production. Other talmudic laws prohibit Barberis from using fruit produced during the first three years of a grape harvest, require all wine to be flash-pasteurized before bottling and demand that the land be allowed to rest every seventh year.

“We are allowed to cultivate the grapes and bring them to the bodega in plastic bins,” Barberis said. “We leave them in the truck, and the rabbis and their employees unload them and do the whole process in a special sector of the bodega. The only thing our oenologist does is explain to the rabbis and their people how to use specific machinery.”

Barberis said his biggest market is the United States, where an estimated one-fifth of Jews regularly drink kosher wine, mainly at weddings, circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, funerals and at their Shabbat tables.

The peak season for kosher wine is right before Passover, when hundreds of thousands of American Jewish families stock up.

“It all depends on production schedules,” said Barberis, who is familiar with basic kashrut terminology. “The Orthodox Jews don’t work on Pesach, so if Pesach coincides with fermentation and the grapes are mature, we can’t use our grapes, meaning we have to buy grapes from other wineries.”

This year, Barberis expects to sell $300,000 worth of kosher wine to Royal Wine Corp., an importer based in Bayonne, N.J.

Other wineries in both Argentina and Chile — a six-hour drive over the Andes Mountains from Mendoza — also are turning to the relatively small but lucrative kosher market to supplement exports in the face of weak internal demand.

That’s resulted in the appearance on U.S. supermarket shelves of relatively inexpensive brands such as Chile’s Layla Cabernet Sauvignon and Argentina’s Byblos Bonarda, both imported by Abarbanel Wine Co. of Cedarhurst, N.Y., as well as Chile’s Alfasi Merlot, imported by Royal Wine Corp.

“Currently, Argentina is exporting more than 50 percent of its total production. Some bodegas export up to 90 percent,” says Enrique Chrabolowsky, a Jewish wine critic based in Mendoza.

Chrabolowsky, who with co-author Michel Rolland, has just published a coffee table book, “Wines of Argentina,” said that last year, Chile exported a record $900 million worth of wine — mainly to Europe and North America — while Argentina exported $300 million. Both neighbors are taking advantage of the fact that they offer relatively cheap land, phylloxera-free soil, high productivity and low wages compared with more established wine-producing countries, such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Even so, less than 5 percent of the kosher wine bought in the United States comes from South America. That’s mainly because the cheaper sugary-sweet Concord varieties produced by Mogen David and Manischewitz in upstate New York still dominate 40 percent of the U.S. kosher market, and Israel also commands a healthy share.

In fact, a search for “Chile” at www.kosherwine.com, a Chicago-based online retailer, turns up 13 labels, while a search for “Argentina” brings up only six labels. Both countries pale in comparison with Israel, with 152 kosher wine brands on the market.

“Argentina never paid attention to exports, because almost all of its production went for the internal market,” Barberis said. “Then internal consumption began declining, which obligated us to export our products. We started later than Chile, which never had a big internal market and has been exporting since the beginning. But Argentina can grow rapidly and has big potential.”

According to Chrabolowsky, a Jewish entrepreneur named Samuel Flichman pioneered Argentine quality wines, though there are few Jews still in the industry. Probably the largest Jewish vintner in Mendoza today is Pedro Marchevsky; his wine is called Ben Marco and has a menorah on the label, but it’s not kosher.

Barberis, on the other hand, produces three varieties of kosher wine for export to the United States: Valero Syrah, Valero Malbec and Valero Tempranillo.

The Syrah, boasts the label, “is produced using carefully selected grapes harvested in Argentina’s world-famous Mendoza winemaking region. The wine displays a deep ruby red color with a bouquet of dark berries and licorice. The wine’s flavor is reminiscent of plums and raspberries.”

The winery also produces Tekiah Syrah and Tekiah Tempranillo for the local Argentine Jewish market, as well as for export to Panama.

As a Catholic, Barberis cannot serve Valero to Orthodox Jews because it is not mevushal, or flash-pasteurized. Tekiah, on the other hand, is mevushal.

But doesn’t heating the wine even for a fraction of a second destroy the flavor?

“Theoretically, yes,” Barberis replied. “But it must be good, because the Wine Enthusiast magazine has given Tekiah Syrah a score of 84 points.”

 

Blintzes, Cupcakes and Pasta — Oh My!


 

Back in the day, Passover meant meat, matzah and potatoes for eight days of the Passover. But in the last decade, the market for special kosher for Passover food has exploded, and manufacturers and supermarkets are providing a variety of products to almost make you forget it’s even Passover. (Unless otherwise stated, all products listed have been certified by the Orthodox Union [OU].)

The Pasta/Pizza Craving

Many people like to at least simulate foods that contain chametz (leavened goods that contain either wheat, oats, barley, rye or spelt), even if they’re not allowed to eat the real thing on Passover. So for those with a hankering for noodles, Passover noodles made from matzah-meal cake are available from Kedem with the Savion label, while Gefen and Flaum Appetizing also have noodles, but made from potato starch.

Frankel’s has produced frozen potato starch noodles but has also branched out this year with a whole array of kosher for Passover frozen foods including blintzes, waffles and the all-important pizza.

Also selling frozen pizza for the first time this year is Maccabee Pizza, whose product is made from potato starch. Dayenu is also jumping on the frozen food bandwagon with pierogies, pizza ravioli and pizzaroggies made with matzah meal.

In the blintz department, Kineret blintzes made from potato starch will be available, and King Kold of Chicago will be selling blintzes, matzah balls and potato pancakes under the Ratner’s label. All are matzah-meal based. In addition, King Kold has also introduced frozen potato kugel batter, potato pancake batter and matzah ball batter. And Dr. Praeger’s is producing both frozen potato and vegetable pancakes.

Matzah, Matzah, Matzah

While the standard Manischewitz matzah has always been available, the Orthodox Union (OU) this year has certified Aviv, Osem, Yehuda and Rishon matzahs from Israel as long as the OU-P symbol appears on them. Yanovsky matzah, which is baked in Argentina, is also being made available this year.

In addition to its traditional egg matzah, Manischewitz will also make available matzah ashira made from flour and grape juice — for those Ashkenazim who are not permitted to eat regular matzah, and for Sephardim who are allowed to eat kitniyot (legumes).

New on the shmura matzah list (handmade matzah) are those from Gefen, Rokeach and Mishpacha.

Kedem is introducing a new matzah product called Matzah Sticks under the Savion label.

And because Passover begins this year when Shabbat ends, for the first timeHadar manufacturers will be producing an egg matzah under the Star-K label, so that people will be able to eat them with their Shabbat meal, as challah will not be able to be eaten.

For the Munchies

Savion is introducing cupcakes and cookies made with matzah meal. VIP will have macaroons and cookies available as bulk items that contain no matzah meal. Manischewitz is introducing a new sugar-free biscotti and sugar-free macaroons, as well as sugar-free cookies made from matzah meal. Mishpacha is introducing macaroons and kichel made without matzah meal. And Yehuda Passover marble cake, honey cake and chocolate cake made from potato starch will be available from Israel with an OU-P. Gefen will have a line of cake mixes all made without matzah meal. Similarly, the Le Tova OU-P line of baking mixes made from potato starch will be available. Savion will be selling cake mixes and muffin mixes made with matzah meal. And this year Manischewitz is expanding its potato chip line to potato sticks and sweet potato chips.

Dairy Cravings

This year the OU-P will appear on various Cholov Yisroel dairy products. These include milk from Ahava with the Best Moo label as well as yogurt from Ahava with the Slim U label. A new OU company, Dairy Delight, will be selling sour cream and yogurt under the Norman’s label. In addition, Norman’s will also sell Cholov Yisroel ready to eat puddings with the OU-P label. Cholov Yisroel OU-P hard cheese will appear for the first time this year under both the Norman’s label and the Kirkeby label. The Kirkeby cheeses are imported from Europe and also carry the London Beth Din hechsher.

Something Fishy

Manischewitz’s Season line has introduced a number of new sardine items in various sauces for Pesach. Bumble Bee has made a large OU-P production of tuna under its own label. Aside from this, tuna is available with an OU-P from Rokeach, Gefen and Mishpacha. And Dr. Praeger’s has breaded fish fillets and fish sticks made without matzah meal.

The Real Thing

Coca-Cola will again be available with an OU-P for Pesach. Look for the distinctive yellow cap in addition to the OU-P symbol to ensure that the regular corn syrup has been replaced with sugar. The secret Coke recipe, however, has still not been disclosed.

 

Laughter From Experience


In Hollye Leven’s new rock ‘n’ roll musical, "Funny Business," comedians vie for attention at a seedy nightclub. They include Will, an intellectual African American, whose producers want him to be just "a little more black"; Art (Will Durst), whose career is so dead, if it were "a toe, there’d be a tag on it"; and Hannah (Iris Bahr), whose mom is an Israeli New York Jew. "You piss her off, she’ll not only make you feel guilty, she’ll give you the finger and bulldoze your house down," Hannah says.

The innovative production stars real comics, such as the Israeli-born Bahr, who perform parts of their act in the show. It’s the latest riff on comedians turning their work into theater (think Julie Sweeney’s "And God Said Ha!").

Leven, who first became fascinated by comics while working nightclubs as a musician, was adamant about using real comedians in the show.

"Stand-up is a very specific art form, and the people who can do it are a special breed," said the 49-year-old Jewish playwright ("Polo Lounge"). "They’re like our oral historians, commenting on what’s happening at a particular time in society."

The approximately 80 comics she interviewed as research were also like "an adult class of emotionally disturbed children"; during taped sessions, they’d insist she avoid the dark-side-of-the-clown cliché, then described mind-numbingly miserable childhoods. The author identified because she, too, had a difficult childhood, growing up with a mother incapacitated by multiple sclerosis.

"I loved the way they used comedy as a survival tool," she said.

But working with comics has its challenges, as Leven discovered during workshop productions since 1991.

"They’re not known for being team players," she said. "They all think they can do it funnier, but their suggestions usually make them the lead."

Director Sue Wolf, who’s worked on stand-up shows for HBO, handles such situations with humor: "I’ll say, ‘If I were directing this play …" she said. She uses her understanding of how each comic gets laughs to help them with character work.

It also helps that the show includes hilarious real-life stories from Leven’s interviews; one example is the scene in which a racist producer asks Art if his surname is Jewish.

"That’s just my stage name," he retorts. "I changed it from Hitler."

The show opens May 9 at the Coronet Theatre: (310) 657-7377.

New UJ ‘Tradition’ Starts


Tevye, Tzeitel, Golde and all the other memorable characters of "Fiddler on the Roof" graced the big screen at the University of Judaism (UJ) on Sunday, April 25, but it was the audience who stole the show.

Five-hundred people — some bold enough to come in costume — sang along with the memorable songs of "Tradition," "If I Were a Rich Man" and other classic "Fiddler" tunes. The UJ singalong event capitalizes on the popularity of participatory shows, such as "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," "Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding" and "Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral."

UJ staff passed out kitschy props highlighting key points in the film — ring pops for "Matchmaker" and boxes of gilded chocolate coins for "If I Were A Rich Man." When the sun set on Friday evening at Tevye’s house, the audience munched on mini challahs.

Participants, drawn into the excitement of the production, led performances of their own. During the graveyard scene of the film, Sandy Erkus, dressed as the ghostly Fruma Sarah, ran about the theater in her tattered wedding gown, reviving the role of Lazar Wolf’s dead wife. Erkus said she didn’t plan to steal the spotlight, but fellow audience members coaxed her to get up and play the part. "Me, being a ham and a half — wait that’s not kosher is it? — I went up," she recalled with a laugh.

At intermission, timed with the wedding of Motel and Tzeitel, Tevye’s oldest daughter, the UJ treated the audience to a mock wedding reception with sliced wedding cake, champagne and even a fiddler playing in the background.

Sandy Kanan, wearing a shawl over her head and a long cloak-like dress, enjoyed coming out and dressing up like Yente the Matchmaker.

"I love getting into it," said Kanan, who finds the program an entertaining lesson in Jewish tradition.

"This is so important; this is our culture; this is our heritage," she said. "There is a lot of truth in it."

The next "Fiddler" singalong has been set for March 20, 2005. A "Grease" singalong is also being planned. For more information, call the UJ’s Department of Continuing Education at (310) 440-1246.

Dollars and Sense of Jesus Films


Despite Mel Gibson’s solid box office reputation, a major Hollywood studio stepping forward to distribute his $25 million Jesus film "The Passion" is not a certainty. The film falls long after Hollywood’s era of Bible epics and outside the trend of Jesus movies finding safe homes on television (e.g., NBC’s Jesus of "Nazareth" miniseries in 1977 and 1999’s "Jesus" on CBS).

Movie studios release very few historical or period films each year, much less a film like "The Passion," which is in Aramaic and Latin with subtitles. The film’s subject matter — the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life and then death by crucifixion — is hardly the kind of popcorn fare studios want for next April.

In 1965, the $20 million Jesus film "The Greatest Story Ever Told" grossed $8 million at U.S. theaters. And Martin Scorsese’s 1988 "The Last Temptation of Christ" proved that religious controversy does not promise a strong box office. Despite the picketing that surrounded Scorsese’s $7 million film, it grossed less than $8.4 million at U.S. theaters.

However, Monty Python’s $4 million Jesus parody "Life of Brian" earned more than $19 million at U.S. theaters in 1979, and 1999’s controversial $10 million Catholic-themed comedy "Dogma" earned about $30.6 million.

In 1973, theaters unspooled two Jesus movies — "Godspell" and Norman Jewison’s "Jesus Christ Superstar" — but both were produced after enjoying solid Broadway success as popular musicals. Unlike Gibson’s "Passion," the impetus to turn those musicals into films was not religion (or art) but just converting theater revenues into movie grosses. "Superstar" earned $13.2 million but lives on primarily as a traveling musical. (A "Superstar" musical starts a five-day run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Sept. 16 and then heads to San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre.)

The same evangelical Christian movie patrons now eager to see "The Passion" saw a Hollywood breakthrough with 1999’s Christian millennium movie "The Omega Code," which was distributed outside the studio system. Budgeted at $8 million, "Omega’s" $2.3 million opening weekend stunned movie executives, but its final U.S. box office was only $12.6 million (or about half the "Passion" production budget).

In 2001, "Omega Code 2" was released. Like "The Passion," both "Omega" films had solid promotional campaigns in churches and Christian bookstores. But the fall 1999 millennium fever that fueled the first "Omega’s" success did not carry over to "Omega Code 2," which by its fall 2001 release lacked the premillennium cache. Opening 12 days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the $22 million sequel saw U.S. ticket sales at just under $6 million.

Slicing the Kosher Cheese Market


At a cheese plant in Compton, Rabbi Avraham Vogel, a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) from OK supervision, adds a bucket of culture to a 780-gallon bath of hot milk. A table nearby is spread with cheese curd, which a worker cuts and then puts through a cooker stretcher that bathes the curd in hot water and then stretches it to produce the stringiness endemic to mozzarella cheese. Another worker slowly dips a small plastic ladle into a giant vat of small lumpy curds swimming around in yellowish whey. These are curds of ricotta cheese, which is made from the milk after the mozzarella has been extracted. The smell of hot milk is overpowering and soporific.

This production will yield 12,000 pounds of cheese for a small company called Anderson International Foods (AIF) that is trying to carve out a portion of the kosher cheese market for itself.

Brigitte Mizrahi, a French woman who now lives in Los Angeles, co-founded AIF in 1995 with the aim of producing quality kosher cheeses in attractive packages. The company currently sells kosher cheese under four labels: Natural and Kosher, which makes Mozzarella and Ricotta cheese; Les Petits Fermier, which produces "everyday" cheese such as Colby and Monterey Jack; Monsey Dairy, a line of specialty cheese such as Swiss cheese and Havarti; and La Chèvre, which is a line of goat cheese made from the milk of Chilean goats. Although AIF distributes several millions of dollars worth of cheese every year to kosher markets, supermarkets, restaurants and industrial clients, making a real dent in the kosher cheese market is a task that faces several obstacles.

Unlike other foods, which only require kosher certification of the ingredients and machinery in order to be considered kosher, cheese needs an onsite mashgiach who supervises all aspects of the production and who participates in the cheesemaking process. In that sense, cheese is like wine. Although a wine can be made of all kosher ingredients, it will not be considered kosher if made by a non-Jew without Jewish supervision.

The apocryphal story is that cheese was invented 6,000 years ago after an unknown Arab took a walk across the desert carrying milk for the journey in a pouch made of the stomach lining of a cow. When he arrived at his destination, the milk had coagulated, leaving him with cheese curds and whey. The stomach lining of an animal — which contains a chemical known as rennet casein — has been used in cheesemaking ever since, and it was for this reason that the Talmudic rabbis prohibited eating hard cheese that was not made by Jews. The rabbis feared that unless properly supervised, the rennet would come from either a non-kosher animal or an incorrectly slaughtered animal, which would make it non-kosher. Today, although many cheeses are made without animal rennet (cheesemakers use a microbial rennet instead) the prohibition against eating products of non-Jewish cheese production still stands.

Kosher cheese is thus known as gvinas Yisroel (cheese made by a Jew). There are many Orthodox Jews who use a still stricter stringency when it comes to dairy products known as cholov Yisroel (Jewish milk), which requires all milk and milk products to be supervised by a Jew from the time of milking — again, to prevent drinking kosher milk that might have been contaminated by non-kosher milk. (Two AIF cheese lines — Natural and Kosher and Le Chevre — are cholov Yisroel in addition to being gvinas Yisroel.)

The kosher hard-cheese market — as opposed to soft cheese, such as cottage cheese or cream cheese — is valued at $50 million a year, and is increasing at a rate of 40 percent annually, according to Kosher Food Industry reports published in 2000. However, industry experts say it is unlikely that kosher cheese consumption will ever come close to mainstream cheese consumption, due to laws of kashrut dictating that consumers need to wait six hours after eating meat before they eat dairy, and many large Orthodox families are too price conscious to shell out for expensive specialty cheese items.

However, new companies like AIF face fierce competition from World Cheese, a Brooklyn-based company that experts say controls 70 percent of the kosher cheese market. World Cheese currently distributes Haolam, Migdal and Millers brand of cheese. Sholom Halpern, sales and marketing director of World Cheese said the company distributes 8,000 packets of cheese every week in California alone. Another spokesman for the company, who declined to be named, said they are unfazed by competition.

"We pride ourselves on fair pricing, and one of the reasons why many a competitor have had a hard time breaking into the market is that to undercut us they would be working at cost," he said. "And the market for kosher dairy is much smaller than you and I think."

But AIF has grown by 50 percent every year that the company has been operating, and they are planning to develop other lines of luxury cheese such as Camembert and Parmesan.

Although Goodis has no illusions about becoming the next Miller’s cheese, she is confident that her cheese is good enough to win over many kosher consumers.

"We are trying to make people realize that there is good kosher cheese," she said. "There is a market for kosher specialty cheese, and it is starting to develop more and more."

From Naive Dream to Big Screen


Michael Prywes was 24 when he decided to make a film. After all, he reasoned, he had started the Jewish Theater Ensemble in Chicago, so why not make his own movie? It was, he conceded, "complete chutzpah or a serious lack of understanding of the world."

Prywes’ first feature film, "Returning Mickey Stern," is a "new old comedy," shot on Fire Island with Joseph Bologna and Tom Bosley in leading roles. It opened the Long Island Film Festival at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center in April 2002 and played at the Long Island International Film Expo 2002. The film won awards at two other film festivals: best feature at the Rome Film Festival 2002 and the audience award at a festival in Tiburon, Calif.

Prywes’ audacious decision came shortly after he left Chicago with a degree in creative writing for the media from Northwestern University and went to Los Angeles to break into films. Raised in Old Bethpage and Dix Hills, both in New York state, he had decided that filmmaking would be ideal for combining his desire to be an author with his talent in the visual arts.

A stint in Los Angeles — studying at UCLA and running errands for a few production companies — convinced him to return to New York to make an independent film that he would direct from a script he had written as a thesis project at UCLA. He and his co-producers, Victor Erdos and Jason Akel, were determined to shoot it "come hell or high water, even with relatives playing the roles, if necessary," he said.

When his partners discussed the project on a radio show in Los Angeles, the host of the show said it sounded like something his friend Joe Bologna might like, Prywes said. Bologna, who plays the title role of a mature man who tries to relive his youthful dreams, recommended Bosley for the role of his adult best friend. Renee Taylor, Bologna’s wife, and Connie Stevens took supporting roles. Prywes’ parents, Dr. Arnold and Charlotte Prywes, did get to appear, as a doctor and his nurse. Four members of the younger cast were chosen from the Internet. Prywes, who also designs Web sites, created www.castourmovie.com, inviting the public to choose from among finalists.

Deciding on a location was easy. Prywes and his family have always spent the summer on Fire Island in the New York area. "It’s so cinematic, with a certain innocence that has not gone away," he said. "It has always been a place of magic and romance to me."

The principal photography began in September 2000 and was completed 19 days later, on Prywes’ 26th birthday. "It was the best birthday present anyone could ever hope for," he said. After completing post-production chores, Prywes’ company, 2Life! Films, began the arduous task of showing the film, looking for a distributor and making the rounds of festivals. "We didn’t enter festivals like Sundance or Toronto or even the Hamptons, because they generally go for the more edgy films," Prywes said. "’Returning Mickey Stern’ is the opposite. It’s sweet and funny. Like popular foreign films, like my favorite, ‘Cinema Paradiso.’ In fact, you could say it’s the perfect foreign movie made in America."

"Returning Mickey Stern," about a Jewish teenager who loses his true love, then helps a younger version of himself avoid the same mistake 50 years later, opens today at Loews Beverly Center Cineplex in Los Angeles.

Fear and Loathing in ‘America’


Iris Bahr is pretty, but you could watch her for the full
span of her 54-minute one-woman production and still manage to miss that.Â

With the help of a masculine hairdo (she cut her hair for
the show, and wears it slicked back) and some minimal wardrobe changes, Bahr
morphs into no less than seven different characters, each with individual, and
often hilarious, accents. The show is called “Planet America, or Are You
Carrying Any Fruits of Vegetables?” and Bahr’s characters bring differing
perspectives to the themes of American isolationism, xenophobia and racism.Â

The issues are particularly timely, but for Bahr, who was
recently nominated for an L.A. Weekly best solo performance award, they were
also personal. She said she’d finished the first draft prior to the Sept. 11
terror attacks. Growing up in Riverdale, N.Y., and Herzliya, Israel, she said,
“I have the advantage of having lived in two very different cultures.” It made
her conscious of issues like terrorism and immigration long ago.

The homogeneity of Israeli society when compared with
heterogeneous America was something else that resonated with her. So was the
American term for illegal immigrants: “aliens.”

The story centers around Violet Star, a repressed
25-year-old virgin, who aspires to work for the Immigration and Naturalization
Service to help rid her country of “hypersexed Latin sluts” like the one whom
she blames for her parents’ divorce. Her first day on the job brings encounters
with a colorful bunch. It also includes many telephone calls from her nagging
Israeli mother, who, to Violet’s acute distress, also happens to be a recent
and enthusiastic Christian convert.Â

The exaggerated characters emphasize various points.
Muscovite Svetlana reminds Violet that “you only have one mother.” Black-hatted
Yankel tells of his rebbe’s favorite isolationist saying, “If curiosity kills
the cat, it slaughters the Jew.” Paraplegic Jimmy O’Riordan’s brogued verbal
seductions reveal to Violet her own handicaps.

In the end, Bahr’s appearance may get lost to her
characters, but her piece still bears a personal stamp. “I’m not kind of
wishy-washy and new agey. I don’t think everyone could get along,” she said.
“It’s really hard not to sound preachy,” but one message is that “isolation is
a basic part of the human condition and it’s common to everyone.”

8 p.m. $15. Tuesdays through Feb. 4 at the Elephant Theatre,
6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 858-7535.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

If you like babbling brooks and floating waterlilies, City of Hope probably has your idea of an interesting and unusual Saturday afternoon. It’s the second annual Parade of Ponds, a self-guided tour of neighborhood water gardens. You’ll get a map of the more than 50 homes on the tour, which cover more than 20 Los Angeles suburbs. Then you’re free to peruse at your own pace.9 a.m.-5 p.m. (Saturday), 9 a.m.-3 p.m. (Sunday). $10 (general), free (children under 12). Tickets are on sale through Waterscapes Plus, (877) 540-7663, and the Rainbow Garden Nursery, (626) 914-6718. Proceeds will be donated to the City of Hope Cancer Center.

Sunday

On the list of features at this year’s Outfest, Los Angeles’ Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, is an Israeli docudrama titled “Tomer Ve Hasrutim” (“It Kinda Scares Me”). The filmmaker, Tomer Heymann, is a youth group leader for at-risk young men, each with something to hide. While Heymann works to get the boys to trust him, he avoids divulging his own secret that he is gay. But it is his eventual revelation that becomes their catalyst for growth.Noon. $10 (general), $9 (OUTFEST members). Subtitled. The Village at Ed Gould Plaza, Renberg Theater, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Los Angeles. For reservations, call (213) 480-7065.

Monday

We Jews pride ourselves on carrying our traditions with us no matter where we wander. Stacie Chaiken’s grandparents were no different. But while they carried on their traditions, they left their stories behind. As a grown woman, Chaiken longed to know the secrets her grandfather determined to leave in Russia. In her one-woman play “Looking for Louie,” Chaiken shares her tale — her search for the untold story of her mysterious great-grandfather.Runs through Aug. 26. 8 p.m. (Mondays and Saturdays), 4 p.m. (Sundays). $15 (general), $12 (students, seniors and groups). Stages Theatre Center, 1540 McCadden Place, Los Angeles. For reservations, call (323) 465-1010.

Tuesday

Using subjects including nature, animals, seasons and biblical stories, six women artists interpret “Archetypal Allusions” in the University of Judaism’s new exhibition. But though their subjects overlap, their treatments vary widely. Susanna Meiers’ drawings of animals shift forms, while Suvan Geer’s birds allude to Buddhist mythology. Also featured are works by Lorraine Bubar, Mayde Herberg, Anne Scheid and Freda Nessim.Runs through Sept. 29. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (Sunday-Thursday), 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (Fridays). An artist reception will be held on Sun., July 28, from 3-5 p.m. Platt and Borstein Gallery, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. For more information, call (310) 476-9777, ext. 201.

Wednesday

MOCA may have Warhol, but Jack Rutberg Fine Arts has Chagall, de Kooning, Matisse and more. With more artistic headliners than we can name, the exhibition titled “Modern and Contemporary: Paintings, Drawings, Prints and Sculpture,” features American, European and Latin American works.Runs through Aug. 31. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Tuesday-Friday), 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Saturday). 357 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 938-5222.

Thursday

Chew on this: TAG, The Artist’s Gallery is presenting an all-member show with a theme you can really sink your teeth into. Check out different artists’ takes on the common subject of food in “Food for Thought.” Various talks are scheduled over the course of the exhibit’s run, including tonight’s Art Salon on “Appetizing Ideas.”Runs through Aug. 3. 7 p.m. (Art Salon). 11-5 p.m. (Tuesday-Saturday), open till 8:30 p.m. Thursdays. 2903 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. For more information, call (310) 829-9556.

Friday

“The Sex Show” debuts tonight at Highways. No, it isn’t live porn, but don’t rush to bring the kids, either. Nurit Siegel directs an ensemble production investigating the art of sex with a post-feminist twist. Think “Vagina Monologues,” only racier.8:30 p.m. Fri., July 26 and Sat., July 27 only. $15 (general), $13 (students and members). 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. For reservations, call (310) 315-1459.

Mr. ‘Saturday Night’


If there are two blockbuster motion pictures that stand as the defining pop-cultural phenomena of the 1970s, they are, arguably, “Star Wars” and “Saturday Night Fever.” And while “Star Wars — the Broadway Musical” is probably not as far-off as we may think, “Saturday Night Fever — The Broadway Musical” is already here. As in here … in Los Angeles.

One person we have to thank for that is Jon B. Platt, who is co-producing the “Fever” musical with its creator, Robert Stigwood. At 46, Platt has staged numerous Broadway productions and national tours, including popular Jewish-themed works such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Angels in America,” which garnered two Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize.

“Fever — the Musical” takes its cues from a popular movie that captured a generation: the image of John Travolta in a tight white suit pulling off those hot dance moves to the disco pulse of the Bee Gees’ infectious pop confections has become shorthand for ’70s era sexuality and style.

The songs are the true stars of the musical, Platt said. The Bee Gees penned two new compositions especially for the occasion: “Immortality” and “First & Last.” But unlike, say, the ABBA-driven “Mamma Mia,” for which a story line was created around the songs, Platt said his production “faithfully follows the story of the film.”

“Fever” revolves around its Italian American anti-hero, though Platt is no stranger to Jewish stories. Some of his most innovative productions have featured Jewish content. Beyond the “Fiddler” revival, Platt worked on the critically acclaimed staging of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” starring Natalie Portman prior to her “Phantom Menace” success.

Next up for the Boston-based producer is what he calls a “reconceived” revival of “Man of La Mancha,” tentatively due in the fall of next year.

Occasionally, Platt muses over the decision years ago to leave behind his Boston University biochemistry studies and pursue entertainment — to his parents’ dismay.

“They were horrified,” Platt recalled with a laugh. “Now my mother has a Tony Award sitting on her television set. This is my doctorate.”

“Saturday Night Fever,” Shubert Theatre, Century City, May 29 – June 24; Orange County performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa, June 26 – July 8.

Backstage Beshert


When USC freshman Cynthia Gross asked professional director Anthony Barnao to mentor her new L’Chaim Theatre Ensemble, he was blunt.

"If you’re interested in doing theater because you love it, call me back," he said. "If you’re interested in doing theater to get discovered for a TV show, don’t."

Gross gave him the right answer.

This weekend, L’Chaim, a multicultural company that espouses Jewish values, unites with Barnao’s acclaimed Blue Sphere Alliance to present the ironically titled "The Wetback" at Hollywood’s Lex Theatre. Directed by Barnao, the production stars members of both ensembles and tells of a migrant worker unjustly accused of murder. "The play explores the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger," Gross said.

The week she arrived at USC, Gross, once a precocious child actress, vowed to start her own professionally affiliated company. Her first stop was the campus Hillel. "When I was 13, I had to make the decision between doing a big theater production and having a bat mitzvah," lamented Gross, who chose the former. "In college, I hoped to combine my Judaism with theater."

Hillel soon agreed to offer start-up funds and house the group, and numerous students responded to the flyers that Gross, as artistic director, posted all over campus. Before long, she and two student collaborators (one Asian American, one Latino) were wading through script submissions. They had already selected "The Wetback," by Jewish author Myla Lichtman-Fields, when Blue Sphere agreed to offer hands-on training.

Between late-night rehearsals last week, Gross was working to establish an apprenticeship program with Blue Sphere that may become the first accredited undergraduate program of its kind. "Our goal will be to do plays by Jewish authors or with themes relevant to the Jewish community," she said.

For tickets to the April 27, 28 and 29 shows, call (818) 906-0675.

Watch Your Language


Jewish Journal theater critic Charles Marowitz writes from Malibu.

Watch Your Language

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, with front-runners such as T.S. Eliot, Christopher Fry and Archibald Macleish, there was a concerted effort to revive language in the American theater. The buzzword was “heightened speech” and, although all of these writers essentially wrote verse, producers tried to steer clear of the word “poetry.” They sensed that American theatergoers would recoil from any attempts to have anything as exotic as that foisted upon them. Just as, at around the same period, when they were risking capital on shows like “The Most Happy Fella” and the early works of Gian Carlo Menotti, they avoided the word “opera.” Music-drama seemed a safer rubric.

That movement didn’t amount to very much. T.S. Eliot’s far earlier verse play “Murder In The Cathedral” was perhaps its finest flowering and “The Cocktail Party” with Alec Guiness in the lead was visibly chic for a few seasons. Fry’s “The Lady’s Not For Burning” was a sophisticated novelty which stirred the pot for other verse-experiments but Macleish’s “J.B.” didn’t exactly enflame the town. By the ’60s, with Method Realism solidly entrenched in all English-speaking theaters, the whole movement kind of sputtered out.

But the desire to restore the supremacy of poetic language (which dominated English theater from the 16th to the 18th centuries and gave us rich harvests from writers such as Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, Webster and Dryden) has always been a cherished hope among a few theatrical stalwarts and it is that hope that seems to underlie David Ives’ linguistically playful series of short plays entitled “All In the Timing” now arrived at the Geffen Playhouse after a successful run off-Broadway and elsewhere.

Groundbreaking as they are alleged to be, there is something of old-styled revue about Mr. Ives’ sketches that contain an ingenious parody of the work of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, a fanciful series of riffs on how two young people try to pick each other up at a coffeehouse, an item about an ingenious con-man (not unlike Mr. Ives himself) who gains advocates for a new universal language, a surreal restaurant encounter between two men and a waitress that maligns the characters of American cities such as Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York, an extended “hairy dog” story about three laboratory chimps trying to re-create literary masterworks, and an historical oddity about Leon Trotsky’s axe-murder in Mexico.

Above, Tom McGowan in “Variations on the Death of Trotsky,” an episode from “All in the Timing.” Below, Steve O’Connor and Elizabeth DuVall in “Good.”

More unique than his language experiments is Mr. Ives’ theatrical style. Whereas other writers try to refine their material from one draft to the next and give you something like a finished product, Ives delivers all the variations simultan-eously and lets you decide your own preference. This technique works fairly well in the short haul as in “Sure Thing” (the coffeehouse pick-up sketch), but feels laborious when he rings three or four variations on Who Slammed the Ice-Pick into Comrade Trotsky’s Skull. The unqualified success of the evening is the Glass-Wilson take-off that is theatrically bold, satirically on-target and imaginatively mounted by director John Rando. The most ambitious piece is unquestionably “The Universal Language” in which the author’s portmanteau words based on French, German, be-bop, slang and acoustical puns almost succeed in creating a fresh, new diction of their own. (e.g. “Harvard U” (how are you), “Of corset” (of course). Rando’s production is remorselessly frolicsome, its two most ebullient performers being Tom McGowan and Kimberly Williams.

I applaud Ives’ instincts to cleanse the theater of mundane, naturalistic reflections on our mundane, naturalistic lives and to shoot for something higher and more stylized, but his sense of comedy is often oafish and doesn’t keep pace with his technical ingenuity, and his subject-matter is almost as earthbound as that of the conventional theater he claims to abhor. Behind the zaniness of Dada (which Ives’ work forcibly brings to mind), there was a philosophic attitude both to life and art that gave point and purpose to the linguistic experiments of Jarry, Vitrac, Tzara and Breton. Ives’ ingenuity does seem to be “All In The Timing.” Would it were also in the content.

A very “diffident scuttle of Frisch” (to fall into Ivesian vernacular) is C.P. Taylor’s “Good” at Theatre West. Cecil Taylor was a cuddly, frizzy-haired Glaswegian Jew and dyed-in-the-wool Socialist who spent most of his life selling phonograph records to music shops around Scotland. His musical obsessions, like those of his fellow Brits Peter Barnes, Peter Nichols and Denis Potter, regularly wormed their way into his plays. I directed his very first production, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and developed a strong affection for his gentle, sardonic humor. “Good,” his most mature work, demonstrates how even the most unspeakable evils can be rationalized and ultimately justified so long as personal emoluments sweeten the mix. Taylor’s play, one of the most sympathetic analyses of the Nazi character written by a Jew, survives despite a company of anemic actors and a plodding, lusterless production.