The Chevra Provides Art and Community To Philly 20s And 30s Jews

Monte Carlo Masquerade at The Chevra. Photo courtesy: The Chevra

At 20th and Market, go down the road a little bit, and you’ll find an unassuming brown office building called The Chevra. But unlike the nearby bank and coffee shop, The Chevra’s purpose can’t be defined in one word.

In fact, their website does it in about 24: “multimedia venue & social network feat. a lounge, bar, stage, gallery & loft providing social, educational, spiritual, & volunteer experiences for Young Jewish Professionals & Grad Students.”

Leon Vinokur, Jon Erlbaum and Aryeh Shalom came up with the idea for The Chevra in 2002. According to Vinokur, their goal was to unite a variety of programming for young Jewish adults within one building. “We wanted to do something that was substantive and sophisticated and fun, social, and that had a really big lev, had a really big heart,” said Vinokur, who is The Chevra’s chief operating officer. [Read more…]

PJFF Film: “Eva Hesse”

Eva Hesse escaped Nazi Germany via the Kindertransport at the age of 3, and although she eventually reunited with her family, she was only 10 when she lost her mother to suicide. Eva went on to have a notable influence on the downtown New York art scene as a young artist in the 1960’s. This brilliant and beautiful painter-turned-sculptor created dynamic works of art informed by abstract expressionism, minimalism and commercial design practices.

Incorporating industrial and everyday materials, like rubber, wire, latex and fiberglass, into her sculptures, Eva redefined her medium and left an enduring mark on the art world. Though her career thrived, Eva still struggled with relationship issues and the double standards imposed on female artists in the art world. All too soon, Eva’s health began to deteriorate, and she was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Based on Eva’s personal diaries, which she kept religiously until her death at age 34, this poetic and evocative film illuminates why Eva is celebrated as one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century.

The guest speakers at this film presentation are Ivy Barsky, CEO and director of the National Museum of American Jewish History, and Helen Charash, Eva Hesse’s sister.

This film was an official selection of the Docaviv Film Festival, the Munich Film Festival, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival and the Washington Jewish Film Festival.

Buy tickets to “Eva Hesse” here.

Twice Veiled: Jewish Women & Art

The place of women in Jewish art was problematic for thousands of years. Beyond the general prohibitions in representational art, women faced the additional challenges of traditional modesty. Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., and Joan Myerson Shrager, M.Ed., will discuss the image and role of women in Jewish visual culture from the origins of Israel to the present.

Registration is required.

Join Legendary Comedians for “Lunch”

Have you ever wanted to join a group of legendary comedians for lunch at a deli?  Donna Kanter, a writer, producer, and director, takes you along in her film Lunch.  This movie records a 40-year old institution: the biweekly lunch.

The camera takes us into Factor’s Famous Deli in Los Angeles.  Sid Caesar, Hal Kanter, Gary Owens, and Carl Reiner are already at the table, eating matza ball soup.  We get to be flies on the wall as the men catch up, practice jokes, and share a lifetime of wisdom.

Lunch

For the past 40 years, a group of writers and directors has been meeting for lunch every other Wednesday. The members and their meeting places have changed over the years, but their appetites for the ties that nourish their friendships have remained. LUNCH goes beyond a single meal, and into the lives and successes of each comedy legend.

An Unusual Holocaust Film

— by Ronit Treatman

The life of a Jewish dwarf who miraculously survived the Holocaust is the inspiration for a new motion picture project.

The Lilliput will illustrate how Abraham Kerber was able to defeat the odds of surviving the war by using his weaknesses as strengths. This dark fairy tale, which is being shot in Gabin and Lodz, Poland, promises to be one of the most moving new films being produced about the Holocaust.

American stage, television, and movie actor Mark Povinelli will star as “Umchik,” as Abraham was affectionately called. Povinelli was one of the seven dwarves in Mirror, Mirror, and a regular on the television show Are You There, Chelsea?  

More after the jump.
The film will take us back to Poland in 1938. Umchik survived the war by hiding in tiny places that the Nazis did not think to search. He concealed himself in garbage cans in the rail yards and underground in the sewers.

Umchik was a photographer and an ardent Zionist. His best friend was Esther, a Jewish woman who converted to Christianity to marry a gentile. Her family and community disowned her for making this choice, and Abraham remained her only friend. As the war progressed, Umchik and Esther supported and understood each other as no one else could.

When the war was over, Umchik moved to Israel. He settled in Kiryat Tivon, and worked as a journalist and photographer. He died on April 19, 1978, and was buried in Kiryat Tivon. The names of his relatives who perished in the Holocaust were etched on his tombstone. The final inscription reads, “G-d will avenge their blood.”

The script was written by filmmaker, screenwriter and producer Minna Packer. She is a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, the Pratt Institute, and a Fullbright scholar at the Lodz Film School. She previously directed and produced the documentary Back to Gombin.

For more information, a preview of the movie, and an opportunity to contribute to this project, go to the film’s website.

Theater Review: Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” at the Arden Theatre


Left to right: Sarah Sanford, Mary Tuomanen and Katherine Powell. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The world premiere of a new translation of The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, playing at the Arden Theatre until April 20, is a vibrant, well-acted, well-directed production that should not be missed this season.  

Chekhov’s influential story about a family’s unrealized aspirations was translated by Curt Columbus, and is directed by Terrence J. Nolen.

“Chekhov isn’t easy — there’s not a tried and true method to make his work speak to modern audiences,” stated Nolen, Arden’s producing artistic director. “But no other playwright speaks more eloquently to the essence of the human condition, and that challenge is irresistible to me as a director.”  

Through research, workshops, readings, and travel, the play is the culmination of a two-year exploration of the master storyteller’s work that took the theater company from Moscow to Providence, Rhode Island to Philadelphia.

More after the jump.

“The Three Sisters” was originally performed at the Moscow Theatre in 1901. It is a classic four-act drama that examines the lives of the three Prozorov sisters and their brother Andrei, who have lived for 11 years in a small provincial town, where their late father had commanded a brigade. Unsuited for provincial life, the sisters long to return to Moscow, their childhood home and idealized haven.  

Although there is not a single Jew among these characters, there is something profoundly heimish in Chekhov’s play, as Diane Samuels wrote in the Jewish Quarterly:

No Jew would have inhabited this social milieu. And yet the sense of community, the emotional highs and lows, the ill-tempered humor, the corny asides, the affection, the melodrama, the poignancy, the hope, the despair, all — as actress Tracy-Ann Oberman insightfully noted when she first mentioned to me that she hoped to find a writer ready to take up the challenge of writing a Jewish version of the play — smack of something very Jewish indeed. Maybe it is the Russian background.

Still, a leap was required to find a way of extrapolating the Jewishness out of Chekhov.

This moving production’s most innovative turn takes place in the first act. We are watching a play within a play, as the actors seem to be having a dress rehearsal for a play, which is being videotaped as we watch it. Refreshingly disconcerting, the clever technique works, and by the time we get to the second act we are in the play itself, but the intimations of the video and the sense of life being a dress rehearsal linger.  

All three “sisters” are outstanding in their respective roles: Katherine Powell as Masha, the sardonic, restless middle sister; Sarah Sanford as Olga, the oldest sister; and Mary Tuomanen as Irina, the youngest sister.  

Lt. Colonel Alexander Vershinin, portrayed by Ian Merrill Peakes, is the play’s philosopher:

There will come a time when everybody will know why, for what purpose, there is all this suffering, and there will be no more mysteries. But now we must live… we must work, just work!

Fine. Since the tea is not forthcoming, let’s have a philosophical conversation.  

Chekhov might not have been Jewish but he speaks to the human condition in this sad, poignant play that embraces all of life: from the boredom of marriage to the ravages of war, from the hopes of youth to the regrets of the middle age. Near the end of the play, Vershinin reflects on that:  

In two or three hundred years life on earth will be unimaginably beautiful, amazing, astonishing. Man has need of that life and if it doesn’t yet exist, he must sense it, wait for it and dream of it, prepare to receive it, and to achieve that he must see and know more than our grandfathers and fathers saw or knew.  


The full cast of “Three Sisters.” Photo by Mark Garvin.

In “The Three Sisters,” Chekhov has written a masterwork that doesn’t reduce life to easy platitudes or resolutions, but captures the fleeting nature of life in four acts that the Arden’s production staff honors in its bold new production.

Single ticket prices are between $36 and $48, with discounts available for seniors, students, military and educators. Groups of 15 or more enjoy significant discounts. Main stage subscriptions are on sale for between $84 and $135.

For tickets, call the Arden’s box office at 215-922-1122, order online, or visit the box office at 40 N. 2nd Street in Old City, Philadelphia.

Post-show discussions will be held following the performances on March 30 at 2 p.m., April 3 at 8 p.m., April 9 at 6:30 p.m., April 13 at 2 p.m., and April 16 at 6:30 p.m.

The Boy Who Left Everyone Speechless


Rabbis Charles Sherman and his daughter, Nogah Marshall.

— by Bonnie Squires

When Rabbi Charles Sherman’s son, Eyal, was 4 years old, a tumor was discovered in his brain stem.

Despite the severe consequences of a stroke following his initial surgery, leaving the boy unable to move or speak, Eyal’s brain remained as active as ever. Even though his vocal chords were paralyzed, he could mouth words, and his family, especially his mother, have learned to read his lips.

With the devotion of his family, and innumerable trips to doctors’ offices and hospitals, Eyal was graduated from high school and then from Syracuse University.

Rabbi Sherman’s book, The Broken and the Whole: Discovering Joy after Heartbreak, tells the story of the decades-long struggle to create a fulfilling life for Eyal.

Last week, Rabbi Sherman was the kick-off speaker in the series Open a Book… Open Your Mind created by the Sisterhood of Har Zion Temple and the Jane Fishman Grinberg Religious School in Penn Valley. All through March and April, various authors will be giving talks and signing books at the synagogue.

More after the jump.
It was a homecoming of sorts for the Syracuse, New York-based rabbi. His wife Leah had grown up at Har Zion, they had been married by Rabbi Gerald Wolpe at the synagogue, and their daughter, Rabbi Nogah Marshall, currently serves as an education director at Har Zion.

The book, like Sherman’s talk, floats back and forth between the initial illness, the months of Eyal’s being in a coma at NYU Hospital, and the artist Eyal has become today, holding a paintbrush between his teeth.

Sherman constantly wrestles with guilt and holding onto his faith, but he has arrived, after decades of self-work, at a place where he is comfortable with his G-d and with himself.

Sherman told me about a home-bound tutor, sent by the New York School District, to work with Eyal when he was in a coma. She came by bus every day to the hospital for the months that Eyal was there, and she cleared the room and spoke to Eyal, even though he was unresponsive.

One week, Sherman recalled, she brought a drum to the hospital room, and banged on it right next to Eyal’s head, teaching him the history and uses of the instrument. Until that time, Rabbi Sherman said, whenever he visited a member of his congregation in a vegetative state, he would talk to the doctor, the nurses, the family members, but never to the patient.

One day, however, Eyal finally woke up from his coma and mouthed these words: “Who was that woman with the damn drum?” Rabbi Sherman learned that there is still a person inside there, and we all need to speak to the patient.

The frankness of the challenges that both his son, his family and he himself have faced through the decades is admirable. And the strength of his faith, despite the frailties of his son’s condition, is inspiring. The Broken and the Whole: Discovering Joy after Heartbreak has lessons for all of us.

Book Review: Jo Joe, a Black Bear, Pennsylvania Story

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Short books, available only by download, are a recent trend.

Sally Wiener Grotta’s Jo Joe, a Black Bear, Pennsylvania Stories was sent to me in this form, which worked well for it. It is also available in paperback and hardcover.

This volume, about a Jewish mixed-race woman raised by her Christian grandparents in a rural area, seems to be intentionally designed as a tool for provoking discussion about race, prejudice, interfaith encounters, the Jewish mourning practice of sitting shiva and saying Kaddish, and dysfunctional families.

As an educator always looking out for high-school-level stories that reveal family diversity, the story also raises important psycho-dynamic issues: that some people do change over time, and how projecting expectations onto others can lead to devastating cruelty.

The violence of the rape and trauma scenes seems quite accurate. Shiva scenes of the Jewish week of mourning after burial reflect the unfortunate and common practice of people giving advice to the primary mourners. Our tradition teaches us to listen to feelings, and not offer fixes. Even so, Kaddish works its magic:

For a few brief moments, I no longer feel like a stranger, but part of something larger, grander than myself. We were brought together by death, but we’re held together by the demands of life. That peace and comfort stays with me even as the circle breaks up.

But I have some issues with the work as a whole:

Continued after the jump.
First, during this quick read I kept hoping that the obvious conclusion would not be the actual one, but the end of the tale is truly inevitable.

Secondly, the main character, who is also the most affected by violence, seems almost wooden compared to rape victims this reviewer has counseled in her roles as a rabbi, and a long-time activist in the field of rape prevention and counseling. Overall, the main character seem to be reporting on her life more than fully experiencing it. The book’s author has written an essay on the malleability of memory — an interesting matter in and of itself.

Third, an aphorism says that between the liberal cities of Philadelphia and Harrisburg lies Appalachia, and the book proves this point. The characters seem caricatured; many of them would readily fit into an episode of Northern Exposure, or the townies of the recent film, Nebraska.

I kept wishing for brief film clips, rather than having to “get the picture” by reading the by-the-book style of writing:

“Hello Judith, don’t suppose you recollect me.”

A woman stands over me, but not too close, as though she’s hesitant to encroach.

About 65, she’s painfully thin, with that strained scrawny appearance of one who’s fought her way through a hard life and survived. Her face is rough and deeply lined; her nose and mouth twisted and papered with small scars. Her dull dark brown hair is streaked with yellowing gray swathes, but tightly groomed, not a strand escaping the bun at her neck. Though decades out of fashion, her flowered dress is starched and spotless…

For some contexts this form of writing can work well, especially for entry-level writing classes, and high school settings, where discussion of the powerful contemporary themes will be of great benefit.  

Three Philadelphians Star in “Megillas Lester” Musical Comedy DVD

Akiba Hebrew Academy graduates Michael Bihovsky, Adam Levinthal and Andrew Davies star in the newly-released, full-length musical animated comedy DVD Megillas Lester, presented by EMES Productions, produced by Kolrom Animation Studios, and distributed by ArtScroll.

Bihovsky, who directed and starred in One Grain More and Fresh! now voices Doniel “Lester” Lesterovitch, an average boy in a Jewish elementary school. While directing his school’s Purim play, Lester gets a knock on the head from a fallen box of puffy paint and falls unconscious. Suddenly, Lester finds himself in the middle of the feast of King Achashverosh, and through a case of mistaken identity, it is Lester who is asked to go summon Queen Vashti to the party.

More after the jump.

Vashti decides to go, which prevents the story of Megillas Esther: Vashti is not killed, a search for a new queen is not required, and thus Esther never comes to the palace. That leaves nobody to save the Jews from the plot of Haman (voiced by Levinthal). Amid a sub-plot involving Bigsan (voiced by Davies) and Seresh’s murder schemes, Lester runs all over Shushan, trying to stay out of Haman’s way and set the Purim story back on track.


The Actors

Get to know the real live actors that are the voices of Lester, Bigsan, Achashverosh, Haman and more!

America the Beautiful – אמריקה היפהפייה

אמריקה היפהפייה

יפֵהפִיָה ללא גבולות
וּזְהב דגן גלִי
הרים סגוּלים
סְפוּגים בְּהוֹד
מישור עמוּס בִּפְרי
אמריקה אַת אֶרץ
שהאל בּרֵךְ בלי סוף
וּבְרית אחים נאמנה
תִשְׂרוֹר מחוף אל חוף


Responses from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert follow the jump.