Odets Revival Hits Venice, Long Beach


Clifford Odets burst onto Broadway in 1935, when three plays by the 29-year-old actor-writer — "Waiting for Lefty," "Awake and Sing" and "Paradise Lost" — opened in the same year.

Odets, the son of Jewish immigrants, was an early member of the fabled Group Theatre in New York, which combined left-wing politics with social realism to help bring American drama into the 20th century.

Some 40 years after this debut, so conservative a critic as Walter Kerr of The New York Times classified Odets as the most talented American playwright next to Eugene O’Neill.

By a happy coincidence, or astute sense of timing, there is a mini-Odets revival under way in the Los Angeles area, with two of his plays now on the boards in Venice and Long Beach.

"Rocket to the Moon" forsakes the proletarian rhetoric of Odets’ early plays for a subtler probing of middle-class characters, caught in the Depression and the wearisome routine of their daily lives.

"Rocket" is among Odets’ rarely revived dramas, which is our loss as demonstrated by the gripping performance by the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, teaming up with the West Coast Jewish Theatre.

Set during a sweltering New York summer in 1938, the action revolves around Ben Stark, a dentist in an unfashionable neighborhood. He is a nice guy, as in "nice guys finish last."

He forgives payments from impoverished patients, doesn’t collect rent from his alcoholic partner and buckles under to his embittered wife, Belle, who is utterly frustrated by his unbusinesslike ways.

His father-in-law is the dapper, cynical and wealthy Mr. Prince, hated by Belle and looking for some happiness in his declining years.

In between long waits for patients, various people drop by Stark’s office for conversation and drinks at the water cooler. Among them are a podiatrist named Frenchy, partner Phil Cooper, Broadway impresario Willy Wax and Stark’s wife.

Enter 19-year-old Bronx-bred Cleo Singer as Stark’s new secretary/dental assistant. She is pretty, bubbly, a bit klutzy, a bit silly and up-to-date on the current slang and stage celebrities.

But she has one trait all the others lack: an irrepressible hunger for life and love, which forces those around her to reexamine the rut of their own existence.

Odets’ pitch-perfect ear for dialogue is here at its best, and even the outdated slang comes alive again.

In the background looms the Depression, but it is not hopeless and stifling. The nice girl comes through and even the nice guy is granted at least a fling at happiness.

The first-rate ensemble cast, under director Elina de Santos and artistic director Marilyn Fox, proves that some of the most enjoyable productions in town are often found at under-publicized small venues.

"Awake and Sing" is one of Odets’ best-known works, yet as a more time-bound "message" play, it feels less relevant than "Rocket."

It revolves around three generations of the Jewish Berger family, living and quarreling in a Bronx tenement during the depth of the Depression.

The dominating figure is Bessie Berger, who keeps the family in line and bread on the table by running the lives of all others.

It’s quite a job, what with passive husband Myron; Karl Marx-spouting grandfather Jacob; frustrated children, Hennie and Ralph; wealthy brother, Morty; and cynical boarder Moe Axelrod.

Presented at the handsome and comfortable International City Theatre in Long Beach, the play intertwines a deepening family crisis when the unwed Hennie gets pregnant, with political sparring between the idealistic grandfather and grandson on one hand, and the capitalistic Morty on the other.

As directed by the respected Simon Levy, the male roles come off much stronger, especially the portrayals of grandfather Jacob by veteran Joseph Ruskin and the boarder and wounded war vet Moe by Tom Astor.

In the central role of Bessie Berger, Jacqueline Schultz, a capable actress, is just too blonde, too tall and too youthful-looking to pass as the archetypical, harassed Jewish matriarch. Paige Handler struggles with the play’s least defined character as daughter Hennie.

A pleasant surprise in the small role of supernebbish immigrant Sam Feinschreiber is Sasha Kaminsky in his American debut.

Born in Kiev, then immigrating to Tel Aviv, the 33-year-old Kaminsky has won a slew of stage and film awards as a Russian, and then Hebrew- and Yiddish-speaking actor, and is now launching his career in English.

"Awake and Sing" continues through July 11 in Long Beach, call (562) 436-4610. "Rocket to the Moon" plays through Aug. 1 in Venice, call (310) 822-8392. Performances for both plays run Thursday-Sunday.

Mikveh Plunges Into Uncharted Waters


Since the klezmer revival exploded a quarter century ago, the Ashkenazi musical tradition has experienced more variations than deli sandwiches. There has been klezmer-infused jazz, hip-hop, bluegrass and most any other permutation one can imagine. But as klezmer has morphed from shtetl to nightclub fare, one of the most unusual things it has added is women, said musician-scholar Yale Strom.

"Traditionally, the purveyors of Yiddish songs and culture were women, but that didn’t occur outside the home," said Strom, author of "The Book of Klezmer" (Chicago Review Press, 2002). "Women did not play in klezmer bands because of the Orthodox prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice and because nice Jewish girls stayed home."

"Even today, women are underrepresented," violinist Alicia Svigals said of klezmer. In recent years several all-female groups have sprung up, including Mama Labushnik and the playfully named Isle of Klez-bos. Perhaps the most accomplished of them all, Mikveh, named for the ritual bath, performs at Temple Israel of Hollywood on Sunday.

The quintet brings together some of the best klezmer musicians anywhere: Svigals, a founding member of The Klezmatics; vocalist Adrienne Cooper, a premiere interpreter of Yiddish song; bassist Nicki Parrott, who has worked with David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness; accordionist Lauren Brody; and trumpeter Susan Hoffman Watts.

If these maidlech had united two decades ago, they "might’ve had to skulk around under a banner like ‘The All-Girl Klezmer All-Stars,’" Rolling Stone noted in 2001. Having come together in the more empowering 1990s, the 5-year-old group has been widely lauded for its musical virtuosity and its fresh, feminist take on traditional Eastern European songs.

In "A gutn ovnt Brayne" ("Good Night Brayne"), a battered wife tells her neighbor about the abuse; "Sorele’s Bas Mitsveh" honors the girl’s rite of passage; "Borsht" extols the virtues of, well, borsht, and "Yosemame" ("Orphan Mama") describes the quiet grief of miscarriage.

Mikveh’s musical voice fills a void, according to Svigals: "I can’t think of another song about miscarriage, although it’s such a universal experience," she said. "We’ve had elderly women come to us in tears after our concerts, talking about their miscarriages which occurred 60 years ago. The material has just had such a tremendous impact."

Mikveh began making an impact back in 1998 when playwright Eve Ensler asked Svigals to put together a klezmer ensemble for a performance of her "Vagina Monologues," to benefit battered women.

"Afterwards, we looked around at each other and said, ‘This is the start of something good,’" Cooper recalled. "It wasn’t so much that we were all women as the fact that we had such a fabulous front line of players."

Nevertheless, each of the performers had experienced "being the only woman in the band," Svigals said. "There was this huge repertoire of women’s folk songs out there, but they weren’t the songs the male-dominated groups were choosing to revive," she added. "As an all-female group, this was the area in which we felt we could make a difference, so Adrienne went out of her way to find [such] songs."

Cooper discovered "Good Night Brayne" in an obscure library anthology published in Jerusalem; she borrowed "Borsht" from a Ukrainian Jew who had brought the tune with her to Brighton Beach and adapted "Sorele’s Bas Mitsveh" from a piece about a bar mitzvah. Band members have also helped compose original songs such as "Orphan Mama," which uses imagery from a Yiddish poem by Itzik Manger.

The goal is to help nurture and evolve Jewish culture: "We don’t want to just recreate the old 78s," Cooper said. "We want to bring the music forward to the audience, not bring the audience back to the music."

Mikveh members intend to do just that when the group performs at The Nimoy Concert Series at Temple Israel of Hollywood on Sunday; June 20 happens to be Father’s Day and the irony hasn’t escaped Svigals.

"Of course, we all have fathers, so we will rock the house," she said.

Yet when asked if there is a daddy version of the classic "My Yiddishe Mama," the violinist was temporarily stumped.

"There is no ‘My Yiddishe Tateh," she replied after a pause. "But that should give us some food for thought. We’ll have to work on that and see what we come up with.

The result could be one more variation on the seemingly endless klezmer theme.

For tickets, $8-$25, and information about the concert, June 20, 3 p.m. at Temple Israel, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., call (310) 478-6332. Tickets can also be purchased at the temple’s box office, which opens Sunday at 1:30 p.m.

Shoah-Era Opera an Allegory of Victory


When she was 11 years old, Ella Weisberger got her first starring role, playing the cat in a children’s opera called, "Brundibar."

But Weisberger didn’t perform in a grand concert hall; instead she sang in the barracks of Terezin, the "model" concentration camp that the Nazis set up in Czechoslovakia for artists and intellectuals.

"Brundibar" ended up being performed 55 official times in Terezin, and in countless other impromptu performances in the camp’s halls and barracks. A charming folktale where good triumphs over evil, this children’s opera became a symbol of resistance and hope for many of the 144,000 Jews interned in Terezin, most of whom were murdered before the end of the war.

Today, "Brundibar" is experiencing a revival of sorts. It is the title and story of a new children’s book written by Tony Kushner, with illustrations by Maurice Sendak (Hyperion Books for Children), and this weekend, the Jewish Community Foundation and the Dwight Stuart Youth Foundation sponsored Youth Opera Camp of Santa Monica College Conservatory will be performing the opera at the Miles Memorial Playhouse and Simon Wiesenthal Center.

"We have been taking the kids through a real journey understanding the social relevance of this piece," said Adam Phillipson, the special projects coordinator for Santa Monica College. "The theme of the opera is overcoming a bully, which is how we made it relevant for them, but we also wanted them to understand its historical relevance."

Hans Krasa composed the music of "Brundibar," and Adolf Hoffmeister wrote the lyrics in 1938 for a competition of the Ministry of Education and Culture in Czechoslovakia. According to some accounts, the impending war prevented the competition from taking place; others say that Krasa and Hoffmeister never got their prize because they were Jews. In 1939 when the Nazis invaded, Jews were prevented from participating in public activities. Krasa took his opera to a Jewish orphanage in Prague, where it had its first performance. In 1943, Krasa and the orphanage boys were shipped to Terezin, and his opera was smuggled into the camp in a suitcase. The opera was a favorite there. It was performed for a visiting Red Cross delegation in 1944, and a performance became part of the Nazi propaganda film, "The Fuhrer Presents the Jews With a City."

"Brundibar" is the story of two children who are trying to buy milk for their sick mother but have no money. They notice people giving coins to Brundibar (Czech for bumblebee), the mean old organ grinder. The children try their hand at singing, but nobody hears them over Brundibar’s racket. Out of frustration they start imitating Brundibar, who runs them out of the market. At night, a sparrow, cat and dog join the children to look after them, and advise them that strength lies in numbers. In the morning, a chorus of schoolchildren join them, and together, their voices are loud enough to drown out Brundibar. Villagers drop coins into their bucket, but then a jealous Brundibar runs away with it. The children chase him, get their bucket back and the opera ends with a song of victory.

"Music was part of the resistance against the Nazis," said Weisberger. "When we sang the finale of this little opera, Brundibar was like Hitler and [the message was] we will overcome him and we will win the war against him, and I believe the audience understood it. They would clap, and we would sing it again several times."

Now, 60 years later, the experience of "Brundibar" is still a bittersweet but happy one. It is both a reminder of prejudice and an escape from it. In the Sendak book, scattered among the brightly colored illustrations are Jews wearing the yellow star and even a Jewish cemetery. The opera camp took its 37 aspiring singers on a tour of the Museum of Tolerance and its Children of Terezin exhibit so they could better understand the historical context of the opera. Yet the specter of the Holocaust did not preoccupy the rehearsals of the opera itself.

"It should be playful," said director Eli Villaneuva to the singers during rehearsal, as they flexed their nimble bodies to look like the animals of the script. "You should feel like this is all pretty silly."

But the performers were aware of the significance of the opera. Eight of the 37 opera campers, who come from all over Los Angeles, are Jewish, and several of them had relatives who went through the Holocaust.

"I am continuing the legacy [of those who died] you might say," said Dana Edelman, 13, from El Segundo Middle School, whose great-great aunts and uncles were killed in the Holocaust. "It was really cool that ‘Brundibar’ had been performed by kids, and it was their way of being unified."

Weisberger said, "’Brundibar’ was our life."

"Brundibar, A Children’s Opera" will be performed Dec. 5 at noon and 7 p.m. at Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 434-3431; and on Dec. 7 at 1:30 p.m. at the Museum of Tolerance, 9876 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 772-2452.

The Little Flower That Could


Hippies, bellbottoms and Volkswagen Beetles aren’t the only ’60s icons to resurface. The Vietnam-era image of a sunflower accompanied by the words, "War is not healthy for children and other living things," is also experiencing a revival. The graphic was created in 1965 by Los Angeles print artist Lorraine Schneider. With a resurgence of the peace movement in response to the war in Iraq, demand for the sunflower has, well, blossomed.

Schneider’s daughter, Carol Schneider, and her husband Bill Donnelly have reincorporated Another Mother for Peace (AMP), the anti-war group to whom Lorraine Schneider, now deceased, donated her artwork shortly after creating it. Formed in 1967 to "eliminate war as a means of solving disputes between nations, people and ideologies," AMP spearheaded a variety of campaigns that helped turn the tide against the Vietnam War. AMP eventually closed its offices in 1986.

The newly recreated AMP, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, remains "dedicated to the principle that war is obsolete." Its board of directors includes artist Lorraine Schneider’s three daughters, Carol, Susan Messenger and Alisa Klaven, as well as several original founders and their children.

"Our goal is to communicate with a powerful statement that there are huge numbers of people … who don’t believe that war is a reasonable means of resolving disputes," Schneider said. The group has an active Web site (www.anothermother.org) and is planning a campaign to coincide with the 2004 election.

"Like my mom, I believe that as a mother and as a human being — not just as a Jew — that my duty is to live a humanistic life and that I have a responsibility on this earth," said Schneider, who is a psychotherapist in private practice.

The original sunflower image was an etching only 4 inches square, created for a 1965 exhibition which stipulated the diminutive size. "Mom felt that in such a tiny space, she needed to say something profound," Schneider said. "She never dreamed that her little etching would make such a big impact."

Meet Me at Third and Fairfax


These days, Third and Fairfax is pure traffic mayhem. Bulldozers, big rigs and construction workers jam the city streets and block available driveways. Trying to park at Farmers Market, the historical market and eatery that has drawn locals and tourists for 68 years, is like entering a revolving door and not stopping. Not only is the Market going through a $45-million revival, but a new outdoor shopping mall, The Grove at Farmers Market, is being erected, for a projected March 15 opening, amidst a flurry of dissension and exhilaration.

The Grove, a 575,000-square-foot exterior mall costing $160 million, sits on 20 acres of land, with an eight-level, 3,500-space parking structure, over 54 stores and restaurants, and a 14-screen multiplex theater. With the Farmers Market to the west, CBS to the north, Pan Pacific Park to the east and new residential development to the south, across Third Street, The Grove will offer prospective customers the most elegant shopping this area has ever seen: Nordstrom, Abercrombie & Fitch, J. Crew, The Gap, Banana Republic, Nike Goddess, Victoria’s Secret and FAO Schwarz, to name just a few. Restaurants will include Madame Wu, Maggiano’s, The Farm of Beverly Hills and Morels French Steakhouse.

The project is being developed by Caruso Affiliated Holdings, whose executive director, Rick Caruso, is president of the Police Commission and developer of some of the most successful shopping malls in southern California.

Concurrently, Farmers Market, owned and operated by A.F. Gilmore Co. (which owns the land that the Grove sits on), is changing. For the first time, merchants will be expanding their store hours to be in line with the Grove’s — from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., (10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday); valet parking and new Epicurean shops will be added. The Gilmore Bank and office spaces, part of the North Market expansion, will open in October. Weekend entertainment is scheduled for a new plaza, and "The Red Line" tram will link Farmers Market and the Grove — the old and the new — along a single trolley track.

If "the new" is The Grove at Farmers Market, then "the old" is the Fairfax district, center of Los Angeles’ Jewish community. A generation ago, Jewish families moved west from East Los Angeles (Montebello, City Terrace and Boyle Heights) to Fairfax Avenue, which runs from Wilshire to Santa Monica boulevards, and set up shop. Kosher restaurants, butchers and bakers populated the area. As more Jewish families moved into the Fairfax district in the 1950s, religious schools, synagogues and a Jewish Community Center sprang up. Recently arrived Jewish emigrants from Israel and Russia gave the area a cosmopolitan air.

With its Old World atmosphere and open-air vegetable stalls and eateries, Farmers Market was an instant draw. Many Jewish residents of the area can’t remember a time when Farmers Market wasn’t part of their shopping or kibbitzing routine. Today, the Farmers Market retains a home-away-from-home allure for many seniors and immigrants in the Fairfax neighborhood.

As much as these regulars would like Farmers Market to remain the same, The Grove, with its many retail options and restaurants, signals a welcome change for many in the Fairfax neighborhood. CBS employees, who stumble out of work at 7 p.m. with no place to get a drink or a bite to eat will now be able to go to Farmers Market and the upscale restaurants and shops at The Grove. The young singles, couples and artists who populate West Hollywood, as well as the tourists, say they will benefit from the expansion of Farmers Market and the Grove.

President of A.F. Gilmore Co., Hank Hilty — whose great-grandfather bought the original 30 acres that Farmers Market and the Grove occupy in 1860 — observes that "people’s reactions are very mixed" about the project. But he believes that this stems from current conditions. "There’s the confusion of parking, construction, concern with the change of character of the market environment," he says. "But this whole project is to preserve and enhance Farmers Market, which is the bedrock of the entire project."

When development-minded Hilty first thought about expanding Farmers Market in the late 1980s, he met with a contentious community. "A lot of community groups were very active at the time, having seen their neighborhoods change, with little input from the people who lived there," he explains. He sought a developer and worked with the community, but due to the recession of the early ’90s, the project ultimately failed. Hilty put the idea on the back burner until 1996, when he decided to try again, and chose Caruso Affiliated Holdings for the project.

"Rick Caruso has earned the respect of each and every community in which he has worked, even among those who traditionally oppose development. His responsiveness to community concerns has led to some of the most popular retail centers in the region," Hilty states on the Caruso Affiliated Web site.

This time around, the community offered little resistance to Farmers Market expansion and the Grove, except, Hilty says, from one community group that questioned the number of liquor licenses requested. That number was modified, and a compromise was reached through a hearing process with the city.

For many regular customers, who have been coming to the storied corner of the Farmers Market for the last 40 years, the idea of a new shopping mall going up next-door has hit them hard. Their main concern is retaining the quaint character of the market: Why do they need another shopping mall in Los Angeles? Isn’t there already enough shopping?

"I think the Grove is a positive thing," says Kathy (who declined to give her last name), one of six seniors sitting around a table in the east plaza at Farmers Market. "But where in the heck are we going to park? We can’t come here and pay $10 a day; we live on a fixed income."

"They’ve really broken up the entire area, with more high-rises and department stores, and the traffic is horrible," says Beverly Baker of the mid-Wilshire district, who sits at the same table and has been coming to Farmers Market for the past 35 years. "Older people need to have a connection [with other people] on a human level, and instead, it’s more and more about commercialism and a world full of objects," she said.

For the Boren brothers, Jack, Morris and Herman, the prospect of a new shopping mall is a positive, except for the parking." It’s going to hurt them if people have to pay for parking," says Morris, 88, who has been coming to Farmers Market for 40 years. "If you have to look on the clock how long you’ve been sitting here, there will be no business."

Despite customer opposition, merchant Paul Sobel, 45, owner and operator of two newsstands at Farmers Market, welcomes the change., saying, "I think it is a fabulous project…. If you’re not moving forward, you’re standing still. This area needed to become more relevant and vital, and the only way to do that is developing, and they’re doing a wonderful job."

Sobel, like many of the merchants at Farmers Market, endured a difficult past two and a half years. Many buildings, including one of his own, were demolished to make way for The Grove. He moved to the other side of the market and almost immediately had a front-row seat to the construction outside his door. One of Sobel’s newsstands, Sheltams, sits at Gate Two, which will be the end of the line (or the beginning) of "The Red Line," and where a replica of an old Gilmore Gas Station will be erected.

With the confusion and inconvenience of construction, some vendors left the market, but the loyal ones stayed behind.

"What Rick Caruso and Hank Hilty have done is impressive," Sobel says, voicing no regrets. "These guys have a lot of integrity. This is more than just a business, more than just a shopping center. They’ve created a sense of place that relates to Farmers Market, a place that has survived time and is still relevant."

"There’s a lot of apprehension, apprehension of the unknown," Hilty says. "But we’re fully confident that [The Grove and Farmers Market expansion] is going to be a great success and benefit to all. It’s like when we announced that we would be open on Sunday, everyone was concerned, but today, Sunday at Farmers Market is one of our most popular days."

"Of course we’ll still come," says Paula Levine, a regular for 42 years, "This is our home."

Alive and Kicking


Aaron Paley, 41, grew up living and breathing Yiddish.

His world was a community of leftist Jews who considered the radical Workmen’s Circle the reichte, the right wing. Paley attended the collectively-run Yiddish Kindershule and Mittelshule in Van Nuys, where he studied labor history and Sholem Aleichem. He marched with his parents in anti-Vietnam rallies and was riveted by tales of sweatshop workers who became union organizers. For the Paleys and their friends, Yiddish was always associated with struggle and liberation; Aaron grew up an activist in his own right, promoting artists through his Community Arts Resources and organizing festivals devoted to “cultural democracy.”

By the early ’90s, however, Paley became distressed about the state of Yiddish in Los Angeles. The native speakers were dying out; Hebrew had replaced Yiddish as the Jewish language; and Paley’s beloved shule had closed down. &’009;

But a fledgling Yiddish revival was sweeping the country, spearheaded in part by another activist, Aaron Lansky, who had founded the National Yiddish Book Center to rescue Yiddish tomes from the dumpster.

Paley, too, decided to take action, inspired by a theater piece he viewed deep in the woods outside a Belarussian shtetl in 1994. As a performance artist recreated Yiddish life in a manner that was neither maudlin nor mournful, Paley decided to launch an organization and a festival to do the same in L.A.

“Yiddishkayt Los Angeles” began with a one-day festival in 1995; it is returning this month with an eight-day fete, “Yiddishkayt! A Celebration for All Ages — The New Face of an Enduring Culture,” Oct. 18-25. With more than 24 events from the Skirball to Self-Help Graphics, the festival will include plays, cabaret, symphonic music, films and an art exhibit. It will be perhaps the largest event of its kind ever in the U.S.

“I want to show people that Yiddish and Yiddish culture is not dead, kitchy, moribund, tinged with sugary nostalgia or regret about the Holocaust,” Paley explains. “I want them to see that it provides a foundation of ideas and creativity that people can draw on today. You can’t throw away 1,000 years of history; Yiddish is in the DNA of Ashkenazi Jews.”

The festival’s focus, therefore, is not on Bubbe and Zayde, but on artists who are reinterpreting Yiddish culture to create new, contemporary works. The New York avant-garde theater collective, Great Small Works, will present the U.S. premiere of “The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln,” a cutting-edge music-theater piece based on the Yiddish-language diary of a spirited, 17th century widow.

“Ghetto Tango: Music in Extremis” will focus on artists who worked in makeshift ghetto theaters during the Holocaust; “Viva Klezmer-L’khayim Mariachi!” will feature klezmer and mariachi musicians; the L.A. Jewish Symphony will perform Shostakovich’s song cycle “From Jewish Folk Poetry;” the Workmen’s Circle will dedicate its new, vibrantly colored mural; and Yankev Lewin will present his one-man show based on the classic play, “200,000,” by Sholem Aleichem, with English subtitles. Sabell Bender directs this surprisingly modern piece about a man who wins the lottery and loses it all to sleazy film producers.

Bender, chair of the festival committee, grew up in Boyle Heights when Yiddish was the language of daily conversation. She described how the first Yiddish-speakers came to Los Angeles, early in this century, from the Jewish enclaves of the East Coast. During the L.A. Yiddish heydey from the 1930s to the ’50s, they supported dozens of Yiddish organizations and shules, some socialist, some Labor Zionist, some apolitical, some communist.

There were two local Yiddish theater companies, including the L.A. Yiddish Folks Bineh (The People’s Theater); union meetings were conducted in Yiddish and so were the lectures at the Soto-Michigan Jewish community center in Boyle Heights.

But as second- and third-generation American Jews moved west and assimilated, Yiddish began dying in Los Angeles. Only Chassidic Jews kept on speaking Yiddish in daily life.

The secular Yiddish revival began here and around the country only after Hebrew was firmly established as the language of Israel, says Eric Gordon, director of the Southern California district Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring. It began only after anti-Semitism had declined and Jews felt secure in America. Then, Ashkenazi Jews openly expressed the hunger to return to their roots.

Today, the Yiddish Renaissance is palpable. The National Yiddish Book Center has just opened an $8-million complex in Amherst, Mass., and is planning to digitally scan every page of every Yiddish book ever published, Lansky told The Journal. There is a KlezKemp for klezmer enthusiasts; and mainstream artists are appropriating Yiddish culture as source material (note Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner’s rendition of “The Dybbuk.”)

Here in L.A., there are dozens of Yiddish-language classes and clubs; a literary journal; at least four professional klezmer bands; a Laemmle Theatres Yiddish film day; and a KCRW-FM series of Yiddish short stories performed by actors such as Leonard Nimoy.

The upcoming Yiddishkayt Festival, which Paley hopes will become a biennial event, is part and parcel of the Renaissance. “I want people to realize that Yiddish is relevant and has a place in L.A. in 1998,” Paley says.

For information and a festival schedule, call (323) 692-8151.

Reviving a Shul, One Goat at a Time


Note to future rabbis: If you want to make a lasting firstimpression with your congregants, nothing beats farm animals on thebimah. Just ask anyone at Temple Adat Shalom in West LosAngeles. It’s been almost four months since Michael Resnick took overthere, and they’re still talking about his goats.

Mort Schrag, the congregation’s president, put it succinctly: “Hereally has a lot of unique approaches.”

Resnick trotted the two goats out in front of the congregationduring his sermon on Yom Kippur. Earlier that week, he was driving tohis parents’home in Northridge, wondering how he could bring thebiblical concept of the scapegoat — recounted in the holiday’s Torahportion — alive for his congregants. He passed a petting zoo thatadvertised animal rentals.

Fast-forward to Yom Kippur. Resnick lays out a waterproof tarp onthe bimah — one of the goats is called Tinkle, a name based purelyon reputation. The rabbi takes a long dagger from his lectern andthen, in accordance with the biblical narrative, draws lots todetermine which goat will be slaughtered for the sins of thecongregation, and which will be set free. Amid nervous laughter andrapt silence, some 700 congregants watch the tall, commanding40-year-old grasp the doomed goat, raise its neck, and draw the bladeacross its throat.

“Don’t worry,” says the rabbi, patting the animal’s head andputting aside the dagger, which is just a letter opener. “We’re notgoing to hurt this little goat.” The point of the exercise, he tellsthe assembly, is that “no one can make atonement for ourtransgressions but ourselves.”

Whether the congregation took the sermon to heart is hard to tell– until next Yom Kippur. But there is no question that the new rabbigot congregants’ attention. And that, as any rabbi in the late 20thcentury will tell you, is at least half the battle.

“Whatever I can do to make the traditions come alive and berelevant,” Resnick says during an interview in his office, “I’lltry.”

The creative approach seems to fit the youthful, energetic rabbi.A native of Sepulveda, he attended Har Zion Synagogue (it has sincemerged with Temple Ramat Zion) but stopped his Jewish education atage 13. After graduating from Cal State Northridge, he embarked on acareer in advertising. But a visit to Israel during the Gulf Warinspired him to change course. He attended the Pardes Institutethere, then returned to the States to study and receive hisordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

He took the pulpit of Adat Shalom in August, replacing therecently retired Rabbi Morton Wallach, who served there for 24 years.Demographic shifts had been tough on the 50-year-old Conservativeshul, whose modern structure sits on a prime block of Westside realestate across from Trader Joe’s market on National Boulevard. AdatShalom has been losing members for the past six years. About 250families and individuals belong to the congregation now, down from apeak of 450. The decline also plunged the shul into a series offinancial crises. “We need to energize the congregation and attractyoung families,” said Schrag.

Resnick, then, seems the perfect fit. In his final year at JTS, heserved as rabbi to the Jewish Home for the Aged in Manhattan. “Therewere 500 people over 90 years old. I did 150 funerals,” he says. Buthe also learned to lead inspiring, song-filled services, based, inpart, on his experience at such lively New York congregations asB’nai Jeshurun, which draws hundreds of young people to Shabbatservices.

The rabbi is working to create some of that same magic on theWestside. “When Judaism is made relevant and alive and exciting,people respond. People are looking for a sense of belonging, arelationship with their tradition,” he said.

Along with a new rabbi, the synagogue also hired a new cantor,Ralph Resnick. The two are not related, but members have startedreferring to their shul as Resnick & Resnick.

On Sukkot, both rabbi and cantor joined with a klezmer band tolead congregants in the procession with the Torah, and provided icecream sundaes for the children. The issue of whether to have music inConservative ceremonies is a touchy one, but Rabbi Resnick sees thevalue in raising it. “I want people to wrestle with what it means tobe a Jew. I can’t force anyone to keep kosher, but I can challengethem.”

Resnick also wants to create social-action programs and developbonds with local non-Jewish congregations. He hopes to create ascholar-in-residence program and build up the temple’s preschool andreligious school, which now have about 80 children.

“I want Judaism to be surprising,” says the rabbi.

Honor Thy Father


Top, a scene from “Countess Maritza;” Above, YvonneSylva Maritza Josephine Kálmán as a child, with herfather Emmerich Kálmán.


Yvonne Sylva Maritza Josephine Kálmán, sixtyish,blond and glamorous, is named for all her father’s favorite operettaheroines. So perhaps not surprisingly, she has dedicated much of herlife to seeing that her father’s operettas have been performed allover the world.

She has many memories of him, but, mostly, she remembers thestories of how the Nazi came calling at the family villa on theAvenue Foch in Paris. It was 1939, not long after EmmerichKálmán had fled Vienna for France, and he wasashen-faced as he received the general. But the general’s message wascordial: “The Führer loves your music, and he misses yourpresence in Austria. He would very much like you to return,” he toldthe composer. Hitler would make Kálmán an “honoraryAryan,” and no one would know he was Jewish.

The musician shakily declined. By March 1940, he was forced toescape with his family to Los Angeles. His music was bannedthroughout the Reich, and most of his extended family perished in theconcentration camps. Kálmán never recovered from theshock and died, brokenhearted, in 1953.

Yvonne, his youngest child, was only 16 when he died. Over theyears, she has tenaciously telephoned and written to opera directorsall over the world, prompting revivals of her father’s works.

Beginning on Saturday, Nov. 22, and running through Dec. 7, theLos Angeles Opera will present Kálmán’s “CountessMaritza,” in perhaps the most lavish production of an operetta seenanywhere. Last week, Yvonne Kálmán could hardly containher excitement as she spoke of the production, jumping upintermittently to play excerpts from the operetta on the stereo.

Emmerich Kálmán was born in 1882 to a musical familyin the Hungarian resort town of Siofok. He attended Budapest’s RoyalAcademy of Music with Béla Bartók, and, by the 1920s,he had become renowned all over Europe. His fiery works, such as “TheGipsy Princess” and “Sari,” combined Hungarian folk themes withstrains of the Viennese waltz.

In Vienna, Kálmán first eyed Yvonne’s mother, VeraMakinska, at the famed Cafe Sacher; she was a lovely Russian dancer,30 years his junior, who asked if she could have a part in his nextshow. George Gershwin later visited the couple at their elegant villaand serenaded them with his “Rhapsody in Blue.”

But when the Nazis forced Kálmán to flee to LosAngeles, the once-prominent composer suddenly found himself obscure,a stranger in a strange land. MGM’s Louis B. Mayer had bought themovie rights to his operettas, but they never made it to the screen.Austrian and Hungarian plots were taboo, impossible with the outbreakof war, Yvonne explains.

It was only when the family relocated to Park Avenue in New Yorkthat Kálmán found a real home amid the expatriatecommunity. He reunited with his old Viennese librettist, AlfredGruenwald, and Yvonne remembers how they shouted together in hiscluttered study while smoking myriad cigars and strewing sheet musiceverywhere. The daughter loved to sit under the Steinway as herfather played or scribbled musical notes on his shirt cuffs. At theage of 3, she first heard Kálmán conduct his work withthe NBC Radio Orchestra, and “thought it was the most beautiful musicI had ever heard.”

Vera Makinska, meanwhile, held court at her legendary Manhattansoirees, where the passing celebrity parade included Greta Garbo andpianist Artur Rubinstein. Salvador Dali, who could always be countedupon to behave outrageously, fascinated young Yvonne with his long,twisted mustache. Shy, sensitive Kálmán usually sat outthe parties in the kitchen with pals Marlene Dietrich and authorErich Maria Remarque.

The composer’s newfound happiness was short-lived, however. Uponlearning of the death of his family in the Holocaust, he suffered amassive heart attack. Three years later, he was virtually immobilizedby a stroke. To cheer him up, 12-year-old Yvonne once brought home asurprise guest she had met at a party. When her father groggilyemerged in his bathrobe, he discovered his film idol, Buster Keaton.

Yvonne remembers the long train ride with her father’s coffin toVienna, where he was buried on a gray, stormy day in an honorarygrave near the composer Johann Strauss. She was devastated by theloss of her father, but heartened by the revivals of his operettasall over Europe. Once, after a production in Leningrad, theperformers called Yvonne onstage and presented her with dozens ofwhite roses, to thunderous applause.

By the 1980s, promoting her father’s work had become a full-timejob for Yvonne, who persuaded the Vienna Volksoper to perform “TheGipsy Princess” at Lincoln Center in 1984. After the sold-out run,she prompted shows in Santa Fe, N.M., and Orange County.

But the upcoming Los Angeles production, she says, is perhaps themost meaningful of all. “My father lived in anonymity in this city,”says Yvonne, who maintains residences in the Southland high desert,Munich and Mexico. “If he could have seen the people lining up hereto buy tickets, it would have been one of the happiest moments of hislife.”

For information about “Countess Maritza,” call (213) 972-8001. Tobuy tickets, call (213) 365-3500.