Thursday, April 30, 2009

Israel Independence Day

Preparing the "Cantorial Soloist" toss is Beignet Yisroel (from left: Cantors Michael Shochet and Jordan Franzel with Rabbi David Bockman. Victoria May is in the foreground.)

Getting ready for the 61st birthday of Israel is not that hard if you go by the English calendar. It's always the same date, May 14, which is the date that the State of Israel was announced by David Ben Gurion in 1948. But the date on the Hebrew calendar is almost always the 5th of Iyar (Yom Ha'atzmaut) and always follows Israeli Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron). If the 5th of Iyar falls on a Friday or Saturday, the celebration is pushed back to the preceding Thursday with Yom Hazikaron held on Wednesday. If the 5th of Iyar falls on a Monday, the celebration is pushed forward so that it occurs on a Tuesday. This is to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath, which won't allow a sad day of memorial to run directly after it ends. So, Israeli Memorial Day must fall on a Monday after an interceding day between it and the Sabbath. This year the date of Yom Ha'Atzmaut was May 3 on the Gregorian calendar and, while the celebrations were not as pronounced as those for the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state, they were held in earnest and with gusto. This year a number of former New Orleanians gathered to make the celebration even more special by appearing on stage at Conservative synagogue Shir Chadash. This was the singing group Beignet Yisroel composed of two cantors, a rabbi and a cantorial soloist. Beignet (pronounced BEN-yay) is a term for a famous New Orleans delicacy, a square donut without a hole that is covered in confectioner's sugar. Typically sold at tourist havens like Cafe du Monde, beignets are best served hot like the group named after them. Beignet Yisroel was formed in the 1990s when its members were all working in New Orleans. Cantor Michael Shochet was the cantor at Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue. Jordan Franzel was the cantor at sister Reform temple Touro Synagogue, while Conservative Rabbi David Bockman was a trumpet player who loved to perform at Chevra Thillim. Shochet has moved to Falls Church, Virginia, where he is presently employed as the senior cantor at Rodef Shalom. Franzel moved to Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania where he now works as Congregation Or Ami's cantor. After leaving New Orleans, Bockman moved away to Raleigh, North Carolina, where he served as pulpit rabbi for several years. Now he makes Temple Beth Shalom of Teaneck, New Jersey his home. All three came back for a performance with Cantorial Soloist Victoria May of Congregation Gates of Prayer. May more than holds her own as the sole member of the distaff side of singers and performers. In the time since Bockman, Franzel and Shochet moved away, Chevra Thillim merged with Tikvat Shalom to become Shir Chadash, where their concert was held. Beignet Yisroel performs Jewish music with heavy influences from New Orleans music. It's great to see these Jewish spiritual leaders and musicians return to their former haunt to entertain the city's community for whom they apparently still have many feelings.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Storer Boone Awards

The seventeenth annual Storer Boone Awards, sometimes referred to as "the Boonies," were held last night at Le Chat Noir, the swank cabaret that has been the host for the awards ceremonies that honor local theatre for the past eight of those years. Le Chat's gracious hostess Barbara Motley and local actor Brian Peterson served as emcees. As expected, it was a night of revelry for many of the productions that had previously been hailed at the Big Easy Theatre Awards in March. Among the best of the most acknowledged productions were the controversial Stephen Sondheim musical "Assassins" and the gripping drama "Coyote on a Fence." Michael Aaron Santos, Anchie Joachim and Jason Kilpatrick repeated for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor in a Drama ("Coyote on a Fence"), respectively. This time out, Santos's wife, Ashley Ricord, won for Best Director of a Drama, making it a clean sweep for "Coyote." Ricord also picked up a "Boonie" for her InsideOut/NOLA Project role in "Sideman" as Best Actress in a Drama, making her a double winner of both Big Easy Theatre and Storer Boone Awards. It should be apparent that the young upstarts of Inside Out Productions and the NOLA Project, who began only a few short years ago, have little else to prove. They are at the pinnacle of success. It was Le Petit du Vieux Carre and the NOLA Project's "Assassins" that garnered most of the other big wins for the night. Jimmy Murphy and Lisa Picone won Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for their roles in "Assassins" and A. J. Allegra won the nod as Best Director of a Musical. All three won Big Easy Awards last month. Of course, "Assassins" was given the nod for Best Musical outright. Other "Assassins" winners were Jefferson Turner as for Musical Director, Eli Grove and Kyle Herbert for Best Set Design, and Cecile Casey Covert for Best Costume Design. Another winner for the night was the Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre's production of "Rent" which garnered Best Lighting Design honors for Scott Sauber and Nancy Macko and Best Sound Design for Cliff Stromeyer. Other winners who reprised Big Easy wins were Meredith Long for Best Actress in a Musical ("Ruthless, The Musical"), Natalie Boyd for Best Actress in a Comedy ("Speech & Debate"), Aimee Hayes for Best Director of a Comedy ("Speech & Debate") and Karen Hebert for Best Choregraphy ("Cabaret"). The Best Comedy of 2008 was "Speech & Debate" and Ricky Graham and Sean Patterson's zany "Renew Revue" about recovery in a post-Katrina environment was given the award for Best Origianl Play. Other winners were Laura Jean Hoffpauir for Best Stage Manager and Alex Lemonier for Best Performance by a Child ("The History Boys"). "A Kingdom of Statues," another joint production of the NOLA Project and Le Petit du Vieux Carre won the award for Best Children's play. The big honors of the night were handed out to Deborah Bell as the Arthur Tong Unsung Hero Award and to local luminary Lyla Hay Owen as the 2009 Storer Boone Lifetime Achievement Award. There were two performances of note throughout the night. The first by Lisa Picone of "Surabaya Santa" from 2 Left Feet's production of "Songs for a New World" was absolutely hysterical. Picone was on top of her game. The second half opened with a rousing number from FourFront Productions' "Altar Boyz." This was timed fortuitously just prior to the reprise of that show opening soon at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre. What made this night special was that it was the New Orleans area theatre community coming together and voting for themselves. Unlike the Big Easy Awards, which are nominated by committees, the nominations and final votes for the Storer Boone Awards come from the rank and file of actors, actresses, directors, producers, technicians, stage managers, etc. They are tabulated online at and in several cases this year some of the categories were decided by one vote. In some cases the winner's margin was only by two votes.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Jazz Fest Shabbat

Marcia Ball with her small fan at Jazz Fest Shabbat

Every year, typically the fourth Friday of April, Touro Synagogue has held a Jazz Fest Shabbat, an opportunity to put Jewish liturgical music and worship and counterpoise it with the music associated with the Jazz Fest, whether that be contemporary, New Orleans rhythm and blues, klezmer or more traditional jazz. Last year Kermit Ruffins held sway in the huge sanctuary and, because of the dates for Passover conflicting with the first weekend, it took place on the second weekend of the festival, closer to the first week in May. Ruffins did a fantastic job getting the entire audience to move up towards the front and dance up and down the aisles prior to the worship services portion of the program. I didn't think anyone else could do as great a job until last night. And I am thankful to reveal to you all that I was wrong! Marcia Ball, the best female pianist to play New Orleans style music took command of the bimah where her band joined her as she tickled the electric ivories. She made the audience feel so happy to be there and to really get into the spirit of the services in a meaningful way. Now for my observant Jewish friends, I am sure there is little I could do to convince them that playing music on Shabbat or using electricity to amplify it could be justified. But for those of us who are a bit more liberal in our approach to tefilah (prayer), it was a revelation. After all, it is Jazz Fest and things are just a bit different during these days. The Jazz Fest Shabbat is in its 16th year, having been formed originally by the late Cantor Stephen Dubov, an amazing man, singer and religious leader who left us way too early. Cantor Dubov was a personal friend of mine and consoled my son and I on the evening of my wife's passing, a mitzvah that I will never forget. After Dubov left New Orleans other cantors have come and gone, but it seems to me that none have taken on the post of coordinating Jazz Fest Shabbat any better than Touro's present cantor Billy Tiep. Billy gets it and he pours himself into each concert. I offer him my heartfelt thanks for a truly moving experience that most everyone agreed was the best we'd ever seen. I can't wait to see how he tops this one next year.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Jazz Fest is coming! The Jazz Fest is coming!

If one lives anywhere near the Big Easy at the end of April or beginning of May, chances are he or she will end up at the Jazz Fest. The fact is that the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, better known colloquially as the Jazz Fest, is one huge event. Culturally, it is one of the best things that goes on in New Orleans, but make no mistake about it: it costs plenty to attend. It has come a long way in 40 years from its small gathering of mostly traditional musicians gathered downtown near the old Congo Square to the five days stretched out over two weekends drawing as many as 90,000 fans a day. At $50 per person for admittance and food averaging at about $5 per item and beers selling for $3 each, it doesn't take long to rack up a lot of damage in a short period. And, of course, that's only part of the story. Hotel rooms are packed to capacity at their highest rates before the summertime and restaurants have most of their tables filled over the course of the run of the festival. But it's not the arts, crafts or culture that most endears the Jazz Fest to attendees. In a word it's the music. There is literally something from everyone at the Jazz Fest from punk rock to hard rock to contemporary jazz to beebop to gospel to klezmer to Cajun to zydeco to folk to bluegrass to rhythm and blues to funk. There probably has been no one who wasn't at least pleased with some aspect of the music played at the various stages located at the historic Fair Grounds every year for the past nearly four decades (the first few years the venue was held away from the present location). So, here's to Jazz Fest: 40 years and still going strong!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Yom Hashoah

Today marks the date that we recall the victims of the Holocaust, known in Hebrew as The Shoah. Yom Hashoah, which is a day of remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust, is celebrated worldwide, but noted for the poignant observance of two minutes of silence in the morning throughout the land of Israel. On a given signal, everyone stops what they are doing and stands in silence, frozen in time as they consider all of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the other millions killed during this horrible time of man's inhumanity to man. It is ironic this year that Yom Hashoah follows the date which Nazi sympathizers use as their clarion call, the birthdate of Adolf Hitler. The two killers at Columbine chose that date for their venous crimes in the hope that other like-minded men of hate would rally around their misdeeds. It is good there was no such movement and their crimes of hate were seen more as the desperate measures of criminals, than the brave or courageous actions they had mistakenly believed others would view their heinous and sociopathic acts. It is incredible to think that ten years have passed since that horrific day or that more than 70 years have elapsed since Kristallnacht ("The Night of the Broken Glass") when coordinated, outrageous acts of hooliganism and thugism were perpetrated against helpless Jews and others. If history has taught us anything, it is that hate in all its searing manifestations will rise to challenge man and it is up to the dedicated actions of brave, righteous souls to take it on with all the strength they can muster. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel went even went further. He said that inaction was terrible, but that apathy was even worse. This is true at Virginia Tech, where two years ago another madman's twisted actions left 31 souls in his sick wake to mourn, making Columbine look like a veritable walk in the park. It is true in countries that would forsake the sanctity of people to live peaceably as in Sudan's Darfur region. It is true in Gaza where rockets rain down on Israeli settlements in a daily barrage of hate. It is true in Iran where leaders advocate against the right of Israel to exist while slowly working towards gaining the mastery of horrible weaponry that could be used to launch yet another Holocaust against Jews. And, sadly, it is true in the hearts of others who spurn the spark of human kindness and fear of God, putting themselves above others as a mockery of the Divine. So for one moment think about the vast blanket of hate that enveloped the world seven decades ago under the banner of hate and consider the souls of the one and a half million children whose lives were extinguished as a result. Then think about the contributions to society they might have made were they not cut down so early in their youth. We are still paying the cost for the consequences of the Holocaust today even while other men of hate lay in wait hoping to kill, maim and torture those whose lives they despise. As Elie Wiesel reminds us, the worst sin we can commit is simply not to care.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Toledo Mud Hens

I understand that there is a person employed by the Toledo Mud Hens whose job it is to scan the Internet and to determine what, if anything, is being published about that minor league ballclub. In case you don't recall, the Toledo Mud Hens are located just outside of Toledo and play their home games at Fifth Third Field, named by Newsweek Magazine as the "best minor league ballpark in America." The Triple A Mud Hens are part of the International League and are associated as a "farm team" with the major league Detroit Tigers organization. The Mud Hens have in the past also been associated with the New York Yankees, the Cleveland Indians, the Minnesota Twins and the Philadelphia Phillies. But the Tigers have been their most predominant partner for many years now. Everything I have stated is correct, but I am sure that the person the Mud Hens employs knows that. Nevertheless, he is probably scanning this blog to make sure that nothing is factually misleading or incorrect in any other manner. The reason he has to fact check this is, quite simply, it's his job. Think about it, though. If people like me didn't write about the Mud Hens, this guy's job might be in trouble. He might have to hit the unemployment line or worse get into another line of work. So, in these hard economic times, I feel I am contributing to the recovery effort by keeping one job firmly in place. That fellow in Toledo will have another day without a pink slip if I can do anything about it. Hey, don't thank me. It's the least I could do.

Friday, April 17, 2009

French Quarter Fest

The French Quarter Fest is in full swing with an estimated 450,000 guests streaming into the Vieux Carre to experience live music, to witness lots of crazy partying and to sample many delicious offerings throughout the three-day event. The smells of the French Quarter are not what one usually writes about. However, the air of sweet success permeates the area this weekend with well over $140 million in sales generated and approximately 10 percent of that going into city coiffers. It seems ironic that the Jazz and Heritage Festival celebrating its 40th anniversary this year gets all of the press, because the French Quarter Festival with its paltry three days outpolls the Jazz Fest by nearly one-third. By contrast, Jazz Fest occupies a week of performances at the New Orleans Fairgrounds. French Quarter Fest is free to the public, while Jazz Fest tickets are usually about $40 with parking, food, drinks, and souvenirs all extra. A typical couple will spend a minimum of $100 at the Jazz Fest, but more realistically will spend closer to $140. That's a lot of money compared to the free French Quarter Festival. Frankly, there's a lot to be said about enjoying and exploring the oldest section of the city. The only thing that could be a damper on the festivities is the likelihood of rain. Oh, well, the French Quarter Festival has it over the Jazz Fest here too. If it rains, one just has to pop inside a shop or bar. If it rains at the Jazz Fest, prepare for mud and a new purchase of shoes.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Deep in the heart of taxes

It must be a sign of the poor shape of the economy, but for the first time I can remember Tax Freedom Day (the date when all Americans have, in theory, earned all money needed to satisfy their tax indebtedness to the government) arrived early this year on April 13. That not only is two days before Tax Day, but a full eight days earlier than it was last year. The reasons are that the recession has apparently caused tax collections to plummet even faster than incomes and the economic stimulus packages passed in 2008 and 2009 have specific tax cuts built in them for this year and next year. The worst year for Tax Freedom Day was back in 2000 when it took all he way until May 3 of that year for Americans to start earning their own money and be free of the yoke of a tax bill. That translates out to 123 days out of 366 (that was a Leap Year) or 33.6% of the time in order to pay off America's tax bill that year. By contrast in 1900 it only took 22 days for Americans to celebrate Tax Freedom Day. In 1950 that figure had risen to 90 days. This year there was not a whole lot of celebrating, despite the early Tax Freedom Day. Yesterday's concerted effort against the Obama administration was punctuated by Tax Day "tea parties" held at various venues across the country. Many of these were promoted by arch-conservatives like radio commentator Sean Hannity as well as by several hyped by FreedomWorks, the non-profit Washington conservative advocacy group headed up by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey. In New York City another former Republican Leader of the House, Speaker Newt Gingrich, spoke before a crowd of thousands gathered in front of City Hall. FreedomWorks claims that the tea parties are designed to be non-partisan, but the overwhelming reality check is that they became opportunities for Republican dissent and possible future candidacies. One of the most noteworthy gathering was held on Boston Common, not far from the original Tea Party of Revolutionary War days. Thousands of people rallied against economic stimulus packages and excessive spending. To his credit Republican Governor Bobby Jindal elected to send out e-mails advising constituents where the tea parties were being held throughout the state. However, he did not elect to attend any of these himself. Jindal is under hot water from his fellow Louisianans, who object to his decision not to accept much of the stimulus money being thrown at the states by the Obama administration. Jindal has become the poster boy for Republican counter-attacks on how best to invigorate the staid economy, claiming that accepting the billions would create future problems for the state . Utah Governor Jon Huntsman (R) drew heavy fire from critics in Salt Lake City where he was booed for accepting $1.5 billion in stimulus monies. It is, indeed, a matter of being damned if you don't and damned if you do. In the meantime we've now passed the time for tax indebtedness and can look forward to earning enough money to pay next year's taxes. We're clear for the present unless, of course, some of us asked for extensions yesterday.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Passover Partying

For one week during the year those of us who keep kosher go through an incredible series of actions in which we shun foods and foodstuffs that would normally pass muster. We stop ingesting "leavened" foods like bread and cakes which contain yeast or baking powder. This is so we can eat the thin unleavened, fairly tasteless matzahs that are required by rabbinic authority. Trust me. If it weren't for the fact that there is no way to get out of this, I'd be looking for some kind of loophole. But I have resigned myself to the fact that it is absolutely necessary. Now for those Jews who are not Orthodox, the holiday and all of its trimmings ends at sundown tonight. For those of us who do follow the Orthodox track, we have one more day (just like in "Les Miserables") day more! The day on Thursday is also a day when special memorial prayers for loved ones are read as well as a special rendering of "The Song at the Sea," the words and melody reportedly chanted in praise of the Almighty when the Red Sea split apart and Pharoah's army was drowned when it was rejoined. It reminds me of that story that was told about the seven-year-old who came home from Sunday School one afternoon. "What did you learn today?" asked the mother. "Well, we learned about the Red Sea," the youngster replied. "Oh?" she inquired, "Tell me about it." "Well, it was like this," her son continued. "When Moses and the Hebrew slaves were stuck at the Red Sea and Pharoah was charging at them, they looked to getting some help. They got Luke Skywalker and other Jedi knights to fight the chariots and the rest of the army." His mother looked puzzled. "They killed all of the men with their light sabers and then left, leaving Moses and the people all alone in the dessert," he said. "Are you sure about that?" the mother asked. "Is that what they told you in Sunday School?" "Well, maybe not, but I'm sure you wouldn't believe what they really told me," he admitted. That's the beautiful thing about faith and the New Orleans Saints. Sometimes you just gotta believe.

Friday, April 10, 2009

To Cleveland and back

It's been an awesome, eventful week as I traveled to Cleveland and back just in time for the Passover holiday. The reasons are numerous. My sister's family still lives in the frozen suburbs there and I had an opportunity to see them again. Then there were my friends who work at the Cleveland Jewish News; I needed to see several of them before their upcoming retirements, in particular editor Cynthia Dettelbach and CEO Rob Certner. I also wanted to see my other friends on staff there and knew this would be a good opportunity. However, before I could see them I needed to also do some volunteer work with Jewish Scouting there. The fact is that most of the training that is offered, nay, all of the training that is offered in that council takes place on Saturdays. That's usually not a problem, but in religious observant communities that do not do work on Saturdays, training is out of the question. So, leave it to me to offer my services. I trained four pack leaders and two different chartered organization representatives. With the training done, I was able to enjoy a bit of a breather. I managed to have a little down time with the family on Sunday night before steeling myself for the visit to the CJN. It was great to see my old friends and to see firsthand how the paper's staff has shrunk due to the economy and other factors affecting Jewish newspapers nationwide. The staff was busy, but they made me feel right at home. I was happy to have taken time out to visit with Rob and "Cindy" especially. I wish them all the best. Monday I spent reacquainting myself with the "lake effect" snow I had know while living there. The snow started light and later came in heavy with foreboding winds and gray skies. I headed to the Greater Cleveland Council of the Boy Scouts of America to meet with the Scout Executive, Barry Norris. I took him out to a Cleveland original, a place called Slyman's, the home of the biggest and best corned beef sandwich there. Before I left, I had time to chat with him about the training I did the day before and to offer my help as it relates to the Jewish units there. Then, it was off to pick up Jerry and Phyllis Lockshin, who were due in to Hopkins Airport en route to their home in Canton, Ohio. It was a short hour-plus drive to Canton, where I chilled for a few hours before having to drive back to Cleveland. I left very early in the morning with only one problem: I lost my moderately expensive Cross pen as I cleared TSA on my way to the flight. I was told that I couldn't make it back to security and back, so I left the pen in Cleveland. I guess someone else needed it more than me, because it was never turned in. Oh, well... Meanwhile Passover started on Wednesday night, just in time for what my mom called "The Last Seder."

Thursday, April 2, 2009

What, no April Fools?

Maybe we can blame it on the economy, but I get the distinct impression that very few people are in a laughing mood.  That's probably why I didn't fee compelled to play pranks on co-workers or clients throughout the day. It just seems like the wiser move at present. Oh, I did get one in earlier in the day. I stopped by a client to install a program that I know will cause the screen to blacken and flicker for a total of about one and a half seconds. I didn't let on about that, but proceeded with the installation and noted that the program was wonderful, but that it did have a terrible side effect one time previous. According to my tale of woe, if the screen blackened it meant that the installation had failed and that it would take some expertise to figure out what to do next to the computer. No sooner had I spoken those words than the screen blackened. "Oh, no!" I shouted, putting my hands to my face in fake terror like Macauley Culkin in "Home Alone" for extra measure. After a second and a half later, the screen flickered back on. "April Fools!" I bellowed, laughing out loud. She screamed, but then started laughing along with me. It was an inspired moment and one that I was devilishly proud of. Oh, well, like the Saints and the Browns are always saying, "wait until next year!"