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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, DECEMBER 14, 2012 PAGE 13A By Naomi Pfefferman Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles Donald Margulies was in his New Haven study when a surprising call came from Gil Cates, the renowned artistic director of the Geffen Play- house in Los Angeles. Cates--who died last No- vember at 77--had overseen four Margulies productions at the Geffen, had just directed the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright's fanciful fairy tale "Shipwrecked!" and had in mind another family play for the author. "He said, 'Donald, how would you like to write me a Christmas show?' And I was amused," Margulies, 58, said, speaking at the Geffen just be- fore a rehearsal of his new play, "Coney Island Christmas." "You don't usually seek out a Jewish playwright to write you a Christmas show. So I said, 'Gil, if I'm going to write you a Christmas show, you know it's going to be a Jewish Christmas show, right?' And he said, 'Great!'" Margulies' response was hardly unexpected. Joe Papp, the late founder of New York's Public Theater, dubbed Margulies "my Jewish play- wright." Throughout his more than 35 years as a dramatist, Margulies has often explored Donald Margulies Jewish identity and fam- ily dynamics, from his early plays, like "The Loman Fam- ily Picnic" and "The Model Apartment," through to later works, including his Pulitzer nominees "Sight Unseen" and "Collected Stories" as well as 2005's "Brooklyn Boy." In varied ways that have evolved over the years, he has, at times, drawn on his childhood in a tiny apartment in 1960s Brooklyn, where his father toiled as awallpaper salesman and Holocaust survivors, with their mysterious and terrify- ing forearm tattoos, walked the neighborhood. For Margulies, "Coney Island Christmas" represents a more ebullient return to Brooklyn, as well as a lighter take on what he calls the "ghetto mentality." Based on the short story "The Loudest Voice," by Grace Paley, the comedy opens in the San Fernando Valley, as the elderly Shirley Abramowitz re- gales her great-granddaugh- ter with a tale of how she came to play Jesus in her grammar school Christmas pageant in 1930s Brooklyn. The action then shifts back in time, as the pageant is rehearsed and conflict ensues: Shirley's mother sees the pageant and its implications as "a creeping pogrom" that will "make our children forget who they are;" Mr. Abramowitz (Arye Gross) argues for open-mindedness and contends that participa- tion does not equal assimila- tion, while young Shirley longs only to perform. Cates' sudden death from heart failure last year, how- ever, is what prompted Margu- lies, who was then preparing his play "Time Stands Still" for Broadway, to give himself a deadline of January 2012 to finish a first draft of the play, which he dedicated to his old friend. He remembers Cates as an "indomitable" figure and a mensch who identified strongly with the Jewish sen- sibilities in Margulies' work. "His death just crushed me," the playwright said, his voice hushed. "It seems quite hollow here at the Geffen without him." Cates envisioned"Coney Is- land Christmas" as becoming an annual holiday production at the Geffen. But ifa yuletide pageant seems like something of a departure for Margulies, its themes fit snugly into his oeuvre. "I wasn't invested in exploring Christmas, but rather in exploring the phe- nomenon of assimilation," he said. He saw Paley's story as "an opportunity to write about what it means to be an American, and to be of faith, any faith. The very comic no- tion of a Jewish girl asked to play Jesus is such a wonderful metaphor for lack of prejudice and a kind of ecumenical ap- proach." Director Bart DeLorenzo said the play's "central ques- tion" is, "Where is your al- legiance?" "Every character is try- ing to figure out where they stand--'Am I a Jew or a Chris- tian or an American?'--and a holiday like Christmas sud- denly can make you feel you must choose some sort of side in this debate," DeLorenzo said in a telephone interview. Gross, who grew up in a Conservative home in the Reseda district of Los Angeles, connects the characters to his late grandparents: "I can almost hear members of my family speaking the words as they are said in the play." Margulies said he based the characters and their worldview, in part, on his own beloved grandparents, as well as the immigrant and first-generation Jews of his childhood neighborhood, who saw America as a land of opportunity but harbored suspicions and distrust of non-Jews. Hewas sitting in an upstairs office at the Geffen, where he woreatweedjacketandround spectacles and exuded both the quietly confident manner of a successful artist and Yale professor. Yet, at one point, the con- versation turned again to his fraught childhood in Brooklyn, where his family "never had any money," he said, and learning about the survivors in the neighbor- hood "was the beginning of my fear of Nazi persecution and a Germanophobia I still struggle with today." As his alter ego, a newly successful novelist named Eric Weiss, says in "Brooklyn Boy," he had to escape Brooklyn because he feared the chokehold the legacies of the Depression and the Holocaust had around his parents' throats. Margulies' range of plays about Brooklyn, some written in the voice of a young man, others in the voice of artists in midlife, have helped him to exorcise some of those demons. "I've also been hap- pily wed and well-analyzed," he added, with a laugh. "But when I visit my friends in Park Slope, I still get a little creeped out. It's just a primal feeling." It's thus significant that Margulies set "Coney Island Christmas" in a more vibrant New York milieu decades before his time. "I had ro- manticized 1930s Brooklyn as being the golden years, of [immigrants] being new to America, when the country was still promising in a way it wasn't when I was growing up in the 1960s," he explained. Not that the setting is with- out its share of urban grit. For visual inspiration, Margulies turned to the Depression-era paintings of Reginald Marsh, "where you can see the grime, the patina of urban dust," he said. And yet, overall, he said, "The play is very joyful. It's life-affirming." For tickets and informa- tion about "Coney Island Christmas," visit www.gef- fenplayhouse.com. Naomi Pfefferman writes for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, from which this article was reprinted by permission. mustc scene By Rachel Marder JNS.org JERUSALEM--When the men of Shtar walked into a Tel Aviv bar on Halloween to perform, the audience was left guessing as to whether the band was in costume. Five guys in black velvet kippot, white collared shirts and black pants, the typical garb of haredi men, is not the norm at Mike's Place in Israel's secular capital. But Ori Murray, Brad Rubinstein, Dan Isaac, Avi Sommers and Tzvi Solomons are the real deal. "I think to a good por- tion of the world it's still a bit shocking," says 29-year- old Murray--who goes by "M'Ori"--rap lyricist for the hip hop, pop, electronic fusion band, in an interview with JNS.org. "I just think they don't associate normalitywith us. Definitely not rap, or any music style, they would not associate with us." Though the band--whose name is a Talmudic word meaning contract--is used to hearing initial chuckles in Israeli venues, such as when they played the independent artists festival "InDNegev" in October, they say their music is bringing people together all over the world and changing minds, and once they start playing, they always get a venue bouncing. "I think we can build bridges," says the 40-year-old Rubinstein (guitarist/song- writer/producer), a father of six who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh in a neighborhood a stone's throw away from Mur- ray, his wife and three kids, as well as 27-year-old Isaac, his wife and two kids. "Being a frum religious observant yid doesn't make you weird or re- strict you in any way shape or form. You can definitely build bridges and create shalom." Shtar releases its new EP, Boss, on Dec. 5--18 months after the release of its debut album Infinity, which was a collection of funk-inspired prayers like "Adorn Olam" and"Shir Hamaalot," original spiritual grooves and smooth, Sephardi choruses alongside eloquent raps. Infinity is more religiously themed and features more Hebrew than Boss, which is al! in English, says Murray, who grew up in a rough neighbor- hood in Seattle. Rather than lines like "Who is like you in this living world/Who is like you in the heavens above/ Who will last for eternity/Who created infinity," from the In- finity title track, Boss features more of a pop and electronica sound, and songs about an individual's struggles, as told through Murray's own experiences. "On pretty much every track there's a story," he says. "I have ups and downs in my life. That's what makes life life. You gotta take those emo- tions and bring them out. It's beautiful to be able to connect to people on all levels." Shtar hopes Boss can ap- peal to a broader range of listeners. "People that don't speak Hebrew or don't have a reli- gious connection or aren't Jewish may not have been able to connect or latch on or really appreciate the Infinity album to its fullest extent, and we didn't want that to happen this time," says Murray. "We wanted to make this album more universal for everybody." Still, spirituality continues to inspire their music, such as on "Rabbit Hole," whose unique rhythm line sounds similar to a niggun (wordless melody) from the Shabbat liturgy that Rubinstein and Murray heard a cantor sing. "Overload" is about reflect- ing on the choices we make and our precious time on this planet, while "Rabbit Hole" is about realizingwhat's real and what's fake, or as Rubinstein calls it, "a song of clarity." In the video for "Overload," shot in downtown Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, a young man comes to a violent realization about the consequences of his actions. They collaborated with Grammy award-winning producer and engineerAdrian Bushby on "Overload" and "Gone Again," and with Pro- ducer Nissim Black (formerly D.Black) on "Rabbit Hole," a rapper from South Seattle who became an Orthodox Jew. The band plans to follow up Boss, five songs, with a second EP by the early summer and a U.S. and UK tour next year, where they say they'll play at any venue, from a club to a JCC. Shtar formed in 2006 when Rubinstein and Murray were studying together at the Aish HaTorah yeshiva in Jerusalem, which specializes in educating Jews raised with little tradi- tion. Though the two, who came to Orthodox Judaism as adults, were focused on their intense studies, they started creating music together, with Rubenstein singing and play- ing guitar and Murray rapping and making the beats. They had set aside music to focus on Judaism, but with rab- binic encouragement and a desire never to look back with regret, they re-embraced their passion. Murray came to Israel at 21, leaving behind a promising career as a rapper and MC on Seattle's Drum and Bass scene, while Rubinstein, a native of Essex, had been the guitarist and songwriter for Lisp, an electronica band signed to London Records. Rubinstein recalls his wife's reaction when he put his gui- tar back on after three or four years of not playing. "That's the man I married," she said. The men of the haredi hip hop band Shtar, from left to right: binstein, Ori Murray, Dan Isaac and Avi Sommers. Courtesy Shtar Tzvi Solomons, Brad Ru- Lookirgbackonhisrecord- hardi cantors and also works doing with our album, it's ing days, le says, "I felt I had as a Torah scribe, not such a risk," says Mur- never realed any true benefits Though they released ray, adding that thanks to outofit..Itallcametogether Infinity through Shemspeed FacebookandYouTube, they when I ws at yeshiva. I real- Records in the U.S. and 8th have fans from all over, and ized ther was a reason for Note Records in Israel, this recently new Muslim fans in recordin[so many years ago; time around they are tak- particular. tostartre:ordingandproduc- ing the independent route, "Whetherornotthebandis ing again" recording themselves, han- successful, hopefully we will Overtl-eyears, theyteamed dling their marketing and be," says Murray. "We're just up with S mmers, Solomons bookings, gonna keep making music and Isaac a native of London "We feel confident in our because it's an expression of whocomtsfromalineofSep- fan base and what we're who weare." Attorney Tom Host of Olsen on Law Radio Show for 26 years Saturdays at 11 a.m. on FM 96.5 WDBO Tom@OlsenLawGroup.com * Olsen Law Partners, LLP Orlando, FL