Infinite Light Hanukkah Event: ‘King of the Egg Cream’

December 11, 2019
Illustraion by Joana Avilez, courtesy of Tablet magazine

When Australian-born writer Emil Stern was at New York University Film School 15 years ago, he and fellow student Justin Bartha were obsessed with a story about a man named Harry Dolowich, a Prohibition-era chocolate syrup racketeer from the Lower East Side. Dolowich engaged in shady methods to corner and control the syrups market. Eventually, the syrup kingpin was charged, tried and convicted, and spent three years in jail before moving to Philadelphia. He was never heard from again. 

A decade later, together with his writing partner and brother Sigmund Stern, Emil crafted an audio adventure called “King of the Egg Cream,” a 10-part radio play/podcast, produced by Tablet Magazine and hosted on its website.

The podcast depicts what Emil called “the heart of darkness in the chocolate syrup industry.” And on Dec. 17, an episode of the series will be featured in a Hanukkah event coordinated by NuRoots, the division at the L.A. Jewish Federation that provides programming for people in their 20s and 30s. 

“I was first drawn to the story because my parents would talk to me about their love for egg creams and the nostalgia for the mom-and-pop soda shops of the 1950s,” Bartha, now an actor best known as the co-star of “The Hangover” series and the “National Treasure” movies, wrote in an email to the Journal. Bartha said his parents and their parents were born and raised in New York and that he used to live on the Lower East Side, “before it turned into the $2,000-per-square-foot Soho extension it is today.” 

Bartha also found himself fascinated by Jewish mafia stories. “When I was sitting in my apartment on Ridge Street reading this true story about a young Jewish man who had just graduated from NYU and started a flavored syrup racket, I knew I had to make something. … Harry felt so real to me.” 

Thanks to his “gift of gab” and training as a lawyer, Dolowich convinced most of the syrup companies to join his price-fixing ring. 

“He was born to be an orator,” Sigmund said. 

“His strategy was to outtalk everyone. He had shark-like gangster skills,” Emil said.

“Harry was a charming criminal whose quick rise to power was spectacularly ended by a mom-and-pop shop who refused to fold to the mob,” Bartha noted.

Some of the syrup brands paid fines for collaborating with Dolowich. But he went to jail.

Knowing that creating a film about Dolowich would be challenging — “I’m not sure financiers are lining up to fund a turn-of-the-century NYC Jewish mafia egg cream drama,” Bartha said. A self-described “radio-obsessive,” Bartha asked the Stern brothers if it would be possible to write the story as a radio play. They agreed. 

“After the Sterns wrote some beautiful scripts, we just pooled our resources and cobbled it together with favors from brilliant actors and technicians we knew in the city,” Bartha said.

“When I was sitting in my apartment on Ridge Street reading this true story about a young Jewish man who had just graduated from NYU and started a flavored syrup racket, I knew I had to make something. … Harry felt so real

 to me.” — Justin Bartha

Among the actors voicing the various characters are Richard Kind (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Bobby Cannavale (“Boardwalk Empire”), Ellen Barkin (“Ocean’s  Thirteen”), Alex Karpovsky (“Girls”), Ari Graynor (“For a Good Time, Call …”), Tony-winner Joanna Gleason, Melanie Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men”), Jason Ritter (NBC’s “Parenthood”), Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man”) and Lewis Black (“The Daily Show”). 

With Bartha as producer, the Stern brothers engaged award-winning Australian sound designer John Kassab, to “get the world right,” as Sigmund put it, evoking New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. The medium permitted the writers to carefully use sound and silence and focus on the richness of the characters’ dialogue. 

After the pilot was done, a mutual friend introduced them to Alana Newhouse, Tablet’s editor. Tablet produced and hosted it on its website. The series of 10  25-minute episodes recently was re-released on Stitcher Premium.

Emil said the work includes a “balance of universally appealing comedy and the insider references” and that “the ‘Jewish stuff’ is very Jewish.” So Jewish, in fact, that the brothers needed an Aramaic consultant.

The music is an original score penned by Australian-born violinist and composer Daniel Weltlinger. The Stern brothers wrote the lyrics to the songs, one of which includes the line, “Eastern Parkway to Passaic/let’s all sing in Aramaic.” The series also features a nigun, a wordless melody that Emil said “holds its own with liturgical competition. I think it will catch on. I just have to come up with an origin for it.”

Rabbi Rose Prevezer, director of the NuRoots community fellowship, said the idea for the event came from one of NuRoots’ seven community fellows, Nina Rose Carlin, who met Emil and wanted to co-create an event to showcase his work. The live podcast event is part of Infinite Light, NuRoots’ collection of co-created Hanukkah-related events.

“All NuRoots events are co-created with a community member to help them seize control of their own Jewish journey,” Prevezer said. She cited Pilots Schmilots, an Eastside gathering of writers who read and share scripts every week, as an example. 

Prevezer said that “King of the Egg Cream” was “so brilliant and so inherently Jewish, celebrating Jewish history and culture, and the weird and wonderful nature of all of it.” 

The event, hosted by writer-comedian Jenny Jaffe, will highlight the Stern brothers and feature the show’s pilot episode. There also will be an exclusive Q&A with the Sterns and some special guests. The Sterns also promised a live musical performance of one of their original songs.

Although Dolowich was the initial center of their work, the Sterns are attached to their other characters as well. “We have more lines and plots for them to follow,” Emil said. “Having lived with these voices for so long, we would love to do more. Like ‘The Simpsons,’ any of the characters could sustain an episode.”

Bartha hopes that the project helps people feel “that sense of nostalgia for a New York City that doesn’t really exist anymore — one that can be wholesome and dangerous at the same time, one where anything is possible if you just have a dream and a whole lot of ambition.”

After all this research, did the Stern brothers uncover the definitive recipe for the titular beverage?

“It’s one of the great mysteries,” Emil said. “We didn’t even want to touch that.”

“That would be a whole other story,” Sigmund added.

“King of the Egg Cream” will take place on Monday, Dec. 16 as part of NuRoots’ Infinite Light Festival, 6:30–8:30 p.m. at the Lyric Hyperion Theatre, $10. Ticket information can be found here.

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