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Up Front

The Play's Not the Thing

July 31, 1997 | 8:00 pm

The Play's Not the Thing

According to reviews, "Mendel and Moses," a musical playing at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills, isn't much of a play. But it is provoking -- at least in some corners of the Jewish community -- significant controversy.

Rabbi Benzion Kravitz, founder and director of the anti-cult group Jews for Judaism, is appalled that not only did The Jewish Journal run a review of the small-stage show about a stereotypical Jewish man who goes back in time to visit Moses, but that we even printed ads for the show. Didn't we know that Jeremiah Ginsburg, the play's writer and director, is a devout messianic Jew, whose ultimate aim is to proselytize Jews to Christianity? Didn't we understand that the play is part of a devious scheme to entrap unsuspecting Jews into Christian fundamentalism? How dare we lend credence to such deception.

Contacted by Up Front, Ginsburg didn't deny that he is a messianic Jew. Indeed, he advertised his 1991 off-Broadway musical, "Rabboni," as a way "to share the Gospel with your Jewish friends and family." But he said that "Mendel and Moses" is not affiliated with Jews for Jesus or any other missionary group.

"If I am a believer, how is that relevant to what the play is about?" he said, impassionedly. "I have been persecuted mercilessly for trying to bless our people. The evil forces of Lucifer and Beelzebub are out to destroy the Jewish people, and all I am trying to do is defend them."

Whatever. Let's assume that Ginsburg, 61, would like you to believe exactly as he does. Even if that is the case, his play at the Canon is not propaganda. It contains no overt Christian content. Some devil imagery here, some Lucifer language there -- nothing you wouldn't see on "Rosanne" or "The Simpsons." No proselytizing takes place during the performance, or surrounding it.

Should we refuse to run ads based not on the content of the object advertised but on the religious beliefs of the advertiser? We don't think so. If Ginsburg's play itself reflected a philosophy anathema to the Jewish community, then, of course, we would reject his ads. But it doesn't, so we won't. -- Robert Eshman, Associate Editor

Deer Me

In our recent review of the excellent new cookbook "Great Chefs of America Cook Kosher," we said, with supreme cocksureness, that kosher venison is not available anywhere "in this universe." Not so, Dr. Doreen Seidler-Feller wrote to correct us. A little research proved the good doctor -- and kosher foodie -- right. You can mail-order fresh-frozen glatt kosher venison from Norman Schloff's Musicon Deer Farm at (914) 294-6378. Schloff raises 400 head of deer in Goshen, N.Y., and slaughters them under Orthodox Union supervision. He'll ship the frozen meat next-day air for prices that begin at $3.50 per pound, with a $40 shipping fee and a 10-pound minimum.

For the less culinarily inclined, you can eat Schloff's farm-raised deer at Levana, a glatt kosher gourmet restaurant in Manhattan, at 141 W. 69th Street (212-877-8457). The deer's tenderloin comes sliced, propped against a homemade venison sausage, and napped with a juniper-berry sauce. All for just $39.95. As for us, we'll be eating crow.... -- R.E

The Keshet Chaim dance troupe will perform Aug. 10 at the Ford Amphitheater.

Shall We Dance?

Keshet Chaim is the United States' premier Israeli dance troupe. Sure, it has the costumes, music and precision of other expert ethnic dance companies. But this group also has the kind of infectious spirit that almost always gets audiences up out of their seats and onto the stage, dancing the hora with abandon.

On Sunday, Aug. 10, at 7:30 p.m., Keshet Chaim, whose name means "Rainbow of Life," will bring its show of Eastern European, Yemenite and Israeli dance to the Ford Amphitheater, across from the Hollywood Bowl. The unique event will bring artistic director Eytan Avisar's Keshet Chaim together with the Rev. Della Reese's UP Choir and Sue Fink's Angel City Chorale. The energizing UP Choir, under the direction of Robert L. Henley III, will perform gospel and spiritual music. Angel City sings pop, jazz, folk and choral music. In the spirit of the event, the "Kids for Peace" mural, created by Gayle Gale, will be on display.

This concert is a one-time-only, three-for-the-price-of-one event, a truly L.A. way to pass a summer evening. For tickets ($20 for adults), call (800) 209-5277. -- R.

Sponsoring Sephardim

The National Association of Sephardic Artists, Writers & Intellectuals (NASAWI) is 11 months old, and already it has sponsored concerts, lectures and a Sephardic Arts Festival at the Skirball Cultural Center. This week, it publishes the debut issue of a 24-page newspaper, and later this year, it will begin a glossy bimonthly, Ivri, which means "Hebrew" and also "border-crosser."

The editors say that it's the perfect word to describe Sephardim, whose ancestors endured several diasporas.

The idea for NASAWI actually began with a border-crosser of sorts: Jordan Elgrably founded NASAWI after a worldwide search for his Jewish identity.

Elgrably, a 39-year-old author and journalist, is the son of a French-Moroccan émigré father and an American mother of Lithuanian-Jewish descent. But his mother's family regarded his father as foreign, non-Jewish, and the bias pressured the couple to divorce when Jordan was 2.

Thus, he grew up in an "American, assimilated, Ashkenazi world, with the idea that being Jewish was going to be defined by reading I.B. Singer, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow," Elgrably says. "By my early 20s, I felt I wasn't whole, and that the only way to put the fragments back together was to figure out my relationship to my parents and their pasts."

And, so, Elgrably emigrated to France, where his father's family had lived for a generation; he stayed there almost 10 years. He studied at the American University in Paris and at the Sorbonne and frequented the circles of the Sephardic intellectual elite. He then moved to Granada, Spain -- where his ancestors had lived before the 1492 expulsion -- and ultimately became a correspondent for Vogue Espana.

NASAWI was born after he moved back to Los Angeles, in 1990 -- specifically after he interviewed author Victor Perera for the Washington Post. Guatemalan-born Perera, like Elgrably, had written an autobiographical novel about his Sephardic roots. The two writers reflected that there was no national organization to promote work by Sephardic artists, so they decided to create one.

Since January, NASAWI has produced events such as a literary evening and a flamenco concert (yes, flamenco has Jewish roots). There will be a Sephardic multicultural evening on Aug. 28 at the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring, a Yiddish cultural center.

"Our goal is to promote a more universalist view of Judaism, with roots in the East," Elgrably says.

For more information on NASAWI, call (213) 650-3157. -- Naomi Pfefferman, Senior Writer
Read a previous week's Up Front:
July 25, 1997 -- UP FRONT: Cookin' Up Vegetarian Goodness; Jewish Big Shots; The Life and Times of Three Women; and Arabian Lailot (Nights). July 18, 1997 -- UP FRONT: A Jewish Doctor of...Sex? Cooking Up Books; and The Rescue of Ethiopian Jews Soon to be a Major Motion Picture. July 11, 1997 -- UP FRONT: Books that Cook and Finding the Journal...Everywhere.

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