May ’08 Spotlight

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’s name is typically associated with Grammy Award-winning recordings of Mahler symphonies and other high brow releases from the San Francisco Symphony. But Tilson Thomas is on his way to Chicago this month to offer us something entirely different: a tribute to his grandparents, Yiddish Theatre stars Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky. I contacted him by phone to ask why he was dedicating a considerable part of his own life to telling their story.

“I grew up surrounded by the veterans of Yiddish theater,” Tilson Thomas told me. “Bessie Thomashefsky, my grandmother, had been a major star. She had amazing memories and astonishing abilities as a performer. People she had known from the old days, people like Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson, she had known them when they were really young kids, given them a start on their very first plays, so they still would check in with her sometimes. I heard so many different stories: lots of laughs and lots of tears.”

“So it became a mission of mine to honor them and their contributions to American cultural life. How much could I rescue from the realm of anecdote and actually put it into a timeline? I worked for five years researching this. This is a real story about two kids who came to the US when he was 12 and she was about 5. They went from a little shtetl in Ukraine to being mega stars in New York, and all this they did just by imagining that it was possible. My grandparents discovered the theater could be used as a means of social transformation in which a lesson and a song and a laugh were all simultaneous.”

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will offer two programs on Sunday afternoon, June 1 and Tuesday evening, June 3. Both will be multimedia productions with full orchestration. For tickets, visit or call the CSO’s ticket hotline at 800-223-7114.

Spertus Institute has also scheduled a related program on Tuesday May 27: a casual conversation between Tilson Thomas and Andrew Patner of WFMT radio, with time built in for audience participation. Think of it as “the appetizer course.” For tickets, visit or call 312-322-1773.


Susannah Heschel, the daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel and a highly-accomplished scholar in her own right, began a speaking tour last year in honor of her father’s 100th birthday. Nextbook has scheduled a stop for her on Thursday, May 29 at the Women’s Club of Evanston.

Born in Warsaw in 1907, Abraham Joshua Heschel was a world-renown theologian as well as a prominent activist in both the civil rights and antiwar movements. When I called Susannah at her office at Dartmouth College for more details, she told me: “We are very preoccupied as Jews with a lot of worries. We’re all worried about anti-Semitism and the security of the State of Israel. We’re still haunted by the Holocaust. So I think sometimes we also need moments of inspiration. My father’s work gives people a sense of joy in being Jewish, lifts us up so we can remember what we stand for as Jews.”

For tickets, visit or call Chicago coordinator Abigail Pickus at 312.747.4074.


Amit Goldenberg and Ya’ara Dolev, married to each other as well as their art, will present “Dancing The Dream” at the North Shore Center for Performing Arts in Skokie on Monday, May 12. The program, which also features members of Germany’s Wee Dance Company as well as Ethiopian, Israeli, and Russian students from the Ne’urim Youth Village, is one of Hadassah Chicago Chapter’s “Celebrate Israel @ 60” programs.

When I called them in Jaffa, Amit and Ya’ara told me that after working with Wee founders Danny Peleg and Marko Wiegert for several years, the four dancers decided to begin touring together. “We have a relationship of true friendship and love,” Ya’ara said. So they are delighted to add Chicago to a list of stops that already includes Germany, Holland, and Israel. For tickets, visit or call Hadassah’s Chicago Chapter office at 847-675-6790.

In addition to the NSCPA performance on Monday night, Amit also told me they plan to do workshops featuring four of their De De Dance Company colleagues at Deerfield and New Trier High Schools on Tuesday, May 13.


Israeli filmmaker Adi Refaeli headlined two screenings of her award-winning short Empathy on Saturday, March 29 and Sunday, March 30. She also addressed members of Congregation Kol-Ami during Shabbat services on Friday, March 28, and met with students at Harold Washington College on Tuesday, April 1. Then I went with her to Washington, DC, where she greeted a sold-out crowd at the Israeli Embassy on Thursday, April 3 before flying home to Kfar Saba. Sponsors of the metro Chicago programs included local chapters of Hadassah and ORT, with additional support from the Israel Consul General to the Midwest, the Israel Ministry of Tourism, Hillels Around Chicago, and Cinema/Chicago. Adi left two DVD copies of Empathy in my care, so if you would like to schedule a screening, please let me know.


In December, 2006, the Sundance Channel broadcast a fascinating 4-part series called Office Tigers. Although not yet available for purchase, members of Netfilx can now rent it as a re-edited 90-minute documentary. Director Liz Mermin has crafted an intimate look at globalization focusing on the creation of an outsourcing behemoth called Office Tigers in Chennai, India. (The film ends with the announcement that R.R. Donnelley & Sons is planning to purchase the start-up for $250 million cash.)

Mermin, currently working in London, sent me the following thoughts by e-mail: “Office Tigers is no doubt the only major international company in Southern India founded and run by two nice Jewish boys from New York. CEO Joe Sigelman was a walking cultural study for his enthusiastic and curious employees, most of whom had never seen a Jew in their lives. It was clear to me that they found his business chutzpah inspiring.”

For more information, visit


Tziviah bat Yisroel v’Hudah (Jan Lisa Huttner) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples ( Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to

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