Local author unpacks a pivotal court case, an obscure doctrine and an ugly legacy

Jack Beermann

By Shelley A. Sackett

The Dormant Commerce Clause doctrine is aptly named. Known to induce temporary dormancy among even the most avid first year law students, its post-bar review practical value outside academia is, essentially, nil.

And yet, Jack Beermann, a Boston University School of Law professor of Constitutional Law, Civil Rights and Administrative Law, has just published a book, “The Journey to Separate But Equal,” based on a little-known but pivotal Supreme Court case that hung its hat on this arcane and crucial constitutional construct that prevents both discrimination against, and excessive burdens on, interstate commerce

Moreover, he turned out a narrative that is as accessible to lay readers as to legal scholars.

It all started when Beermann, who grew up in Skokie, Illinois and lives in Swampscott with his wife, Debbie Korman, read a law review article that cited Hall v. Decuir, an 1877 Supreme Court decision that struck down a Louisiana state antidiscrimination statute and, for the first time after the Civil War, actually approved race-based segregation.

He had never heard of the case.

His curiosity piqued, he began a ten-year journey of trips to Louisiana, research, writing and re-writing, fueled by a drive to document the Court’s first step towards validating segregation in US society. The end result, “The Journey to Separate But Equal,” while exhaustively researched and painstakingly scholarly, is also immensely readable, owing to the compelling human story at its center.

Josephine Decuir, a mixed-race, privileged and wealthy woman whose free family owned slaves that worked their Louisiana plantations, had, as was her custom, booked a first-class ticket in the ladies’ cabin aboard the interstate riverboat, The Governor Allen. Instead of honoring her prepaid ticket, the boat’s stringent segregation policy relegated her to the “colored-only” section of the riverboat, where all non-White passengers, regardless of sex or social status, slept in common areas.

Madame Decuir sued the riverboat owner, citing Louisiana’s nondiscrimination statute, a state law passed during Reconstruction. State courts ruled in her favor, and the owner appealed. The case wound its way to the Supreme Court as Hall v. Decuir. That court ruled against Madame Decuir, citing the US Constitution’s Dormant Commerce Clause doctrine, which is used to prohibit state legislation that discriminates against interstate or international commerce.

Essentially, the Court accepted the owner’s argument that, despite violating state law, segregation was both customary on riverboats and necessary to keep Whites as customers; i.e., integration had the potential to negatively impact his business.

Beermann, who already knew the Supreme Court had prevented the federal government from enforcing Congress’s civil rights program for Reconstruction, wasn’t aware it had also prevented states from enforcing liberal civil rights laws. “I would have written the book regardless of what was happening in the world, but it feels like this subject gets more timely every day,” he said by email.

There are many parallels between the Courts of 1877 and today, Beermann said. “One thing courts are very good at is justifying terrible decisions with bland, benign language. The Justices in 1877 were good people, well-trained in the law; and yet, without flinching, they doomed millions of their fellow citizens to terrible lives of oppression and injustice.”

During his research, Beermann experienced two “aha” moments. One was when he realized the scope and implications of the story he had uncovered. Decuir, as a “person of color”, was used to the treatment and privilege her wealth, status and lighter skin afforded her. Suddenly, she felt the sting of prejudice and exclusion almost as strongly as the darker-skinned people at the bottom of the social ladder.

The other was when he recognized, after repeated attempts, that he couldn’t address the complicated issue that Madame Decuir and her family were themselves slaveowners before the Civil War. “I decided to focus on her dignity harms and leave that issue to the reader, or perhaps to another project,” he said.

As a teenager, the protests against the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King’s activism awakened Beermann’s interest in civil rights. He remembers his father as “a bit involved in politics. I knew we were a very liberally oriented family, even when I was a small child.” He has taught in Israel numerous times and, “although I don’t agree with all of its policies,” he is a strong supporter. His family (including three sons and a daughter, when they are home) attends Chabad House and Temple Sinai in Marblehead. “Our Jewish identity is very important to us,” he said.

Beermann hopes his readers will gain a better sense of the racial politics of the Reconstruction era, opening their eyes to how laws and courts contributed — and continue to contribute — to racial segregation. In the end, though, he admits he doesn’t know the moral of the Decuir legacy.

“It’s too simplistic to say that race discrimination is wrong; my sense, maybe what I was trying to communicate, is that race discrimination, and white supremacy in particular, are woven into the fabric of our country and have resisted unraveling at every turn,” he said.

Join Beermann at a free Zoom author event on May 27 from 7-8 pm. To register, visit jccns.org.

Shirat Hayam families adjust b’nai mitzvah plans in the time of COVID

by Shelley A. Sackett

Despite Covid-19 and the unpredictability of surges, declines and shifting Massachusetts social gathering rules, eight Shirat families celebrated Bnei Mitzvah over the course of this past year. Five held services at CSH with fewer than 25 guests; two held services in their homes with clergy support online, and one family held the service in their home with Rabbi Michael present.

(L-R)  Kay (age 11), Sara (Ewing), Nat and Jay Mahler

Nat Mahler had the distinction of being CSH’s first Covid-19 Bar Mitzvah. Scheduled for March 21, 2020, it was exactly eight days after everything in the state shut down, including CSH. The Mahler family decided to have the service in their living room. They borrowed a Torah and siddurim from CSH and Rabbi Michael officiated. Nat’s paternal grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins attended and everyone else connected via Zoom, “which was a novelty back in the day!” Sara joked. For Kiddush, Jay’s parents brought bagels.

They were saddened that Sara’s family couldn’t travel from out of state, that the service could not be in the synagogue and that the evening celebration had to be cancelled. “At first I felt disappointed, but I soon realized that I had to rise to the occasion and do my best,” Nat said. Fortunately, he was able to have all his Bar Mitzvah lessons in person. “Studying for my big event went well and I was more than prepared thanks to my awesome tutor, Jan Brodie.”

For Sara and Jay, having an actual Torah in their house was very special, a flip side of Covid-19 restrictions. “Also, the service was very intimate, special and a unique experience that will stand out in everyone’s memory,” Sara said. “And, our cat Pepper was able to attend!”

At first, Jeremy Sorkin, whose spring Bar Mitzvah was postponed until October 11, 2020  was worried that he might have to learn a new parsha when his original date was moved. But when Rabbi Michael suggested he keep the original parsha as an importance part of maintaining the significance of his Bar Mitzvah, he was greatly relieved. Although it was difficult to continue his lessons virtually, his tutor Jan Brodie and Aunt Nancy Sorkin spent countless hours preparing him during the fall. “This gave me so much confidence for performing the service on my big day,” Jeremy said.


(L-R): Jeffrey, Amanda, Jeremy, and Amy Sorkin

When Jeremy’s parents, Amy and Jeffrey Sorkin, moved the original May 23, 2020 date to Columbus Day weekend, they never imagined they would be having a virtual Bar Mitzvah, but as the date approached, it became evident they would. In October, there was a 25-person limit on indoor gatherings, and their immediate family could be accommodated with friends and family watching from afar. Even with the technical challenges of shulcasting, Amy and Jeffrey were able to find a silver lining. “Our family was able to focus on what the true essence of a Bar Mitzvah celebration is- a very meaningful service conducted by Cantor Alty (Rabbi Michael was sick), a thought-provoking Dvar Torah by Jeremy and dancing the hora with our close family. It was truly a memorable experience for our family,” they said.


Hannah and Vivian (age 10) Schwartz

Two weeks later, on October 24,2020  Hannah Schwartz also celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at CSH with a small family group and more than 100 others watching on Zoom. The weekend included a Shabbat dinner in an indoor/outdoor setting, a hybrid service Saturday morning, a drive-by parade after the service for local friends, a boxed Kiddush lunch outside, a Saturday night festive dinner and Sunday brunch- and lots of careful quarantining, testing and masking for those participating in person.

For Hannah’s parents, Janna and George Schwartz, the biggest challenges were the unknowns every step of the way, and they are grateful to everyone at CSH who helped them navigate the unchartered waters. While they missed many people, they felt blessed to have been able to integrate many personal elements into the ceremony, from Hannah’s sister Vivian playing Siman Tov on the piano to her cousin’s receiving an in-person Aliyah to her grandparents presenting her with her tallis. “Jews have endured carrying on our traditions despite difficult circumstances throughout history. This was ours- and one to be cherished,” Janna said.

For Hannah, though, the virtual experience was disappointing. “Not everyone was there. It didn’t feel like a ‘normal’ Bat Mitzvah, but it was a special family gathering and we made the most of it,” she said.

Liora Ragozin, whose September 25, 2020 Bat Mitzvah also took place in the CSH sanctuary with many others watching and participating virtually, missed having her cousins with her, but said that because her family (including her parents, Rabbi Michael and Sarah Ragozin and siblings Noam and Aliza) and friendship circle are small, “it felt good to celebrate the way we did. My favorite part was giving my Dvar Torah. I enjoy public speaking – when it’s in English!” she added.

Jake Dubow initially felt let down that his December 12, 2020 Bar Mitzvah didn’t turn out as planned. “For my whole life, I had been talking with my family about a big Bar Mitzvah and party,” he said. Instead of the 400-guest in-person ceremony in the sanctuary, sleepover with all his camp friends and a celebration at Boston’s Hard Rock Café, he had a small service with 17 guests in an open-sided tent in his Swampscott yard without his paternal grandparents, who couldn’t make it from Canada and Florida. Even the clergy were zoomed in.


(L-R): Jonathan, Jake, Rachelle and Charlie Dubow

Jake had started studying with Jan Brodie before the pandemic and felt grateful for the in-person lessons prior to having to shift to virtual tutoring. “Studying was hard work, but I was very diligent. Although I was nervous, I was also excited to show off my hard work on my Bar Mitzvah day,” he said.

For his parents, Rachelle and Jonathan, the vagaries of Covid-19 were even more daunting. Rachelle grew up with a mother who was (and still is) a professional event planner and a grandfather who was a kosher caterer, so celebrating simchas in a “big” way has always been in her blood. They had already shifted  gears, with plans to still celebrate on Jake’s actual Bar Mitzvah date (also Shabbat of Hannukah) at CSH with Rabbi Michael and Cantor Alty, but with only 17 live guests and the rest of their friends and family virtually. Then, on December 8, CSH indoor rules changed, prohibiting any gatherings in the building. The Dubows pivoted to the tent, hardly missing a beat.

The family Kiddush was shared on Zoom, with Jake and his younger brother, Charlie, leading the prayers, followed by an outdoor pop-up and drive-by for well-wishers. “We had music playing and an amazing vibe going, so despite being outside and masked, it felt like a slice of normal,” Rachelle said.

Her biggest challenge was missing her in-laws and sister and her family, but the many rewards softened that blow. Because of Zoom, many friends and relatives were able to join from Israel, France, Canada and the US. The Wednesday before the Bar Mitzvah, two Torahs arrived at their home. “Just having those scrolls in my home elevated us spiritually in a way that is hard to describe. But most of all, it was the pride, the immeasurable, indescribable pride we had in our son who had worked so hard and handled all the pivots and little disappointments with such grace,” she said.

Like his fellow Covid-19 Bnei Mitzvah celebrants, Ned Jefferies was at first disappointed that his January 9, 2021 would be on Zoom instead of in the sanctuary, and then he was doubly disappointed that instead of Zoom (where he could have seen those watching), there were so many guests that they had to use Zoom Webinar. “It was cool seeing everyone’s messages in chat, though,” he said.


(L-R): Jennifer Mazur (Cat’s mother), Cat, Tom, Sophie, Ned, Yelena Jefferies and Joe Mazur (Cat’s father)

For his parents, Cat and Tom Jefferies, the event was actually wonderful, with Tom’s family in England and their friends all over the world able to join them. “For many, this was the first Bar Mitzvah they had ever been to. We were really touched by how meaningful they found it and it felt wonderful to be able to share it with them,” Cat said.

Although Cat admits they were nervous about the technology, J.R. Young, Rabbi Michael, Cantor Alty and Barri Stein all advised them. Family members were able to Zoom in and read Torah, take Aliyahs and read prayers “from California to Canada to England – and it all went smoothly!” Cat said.

Kiddush was Ned’s favorite dish, pesto pasta cooked by his grandmother, Jennifer Mazur. The eight family members sat around the kitchen table and then ran out to do a Mitzvah drive-by at CSH.

Having the Torah in their home was very special and a highlight of the weekend and a true family event. They set it on a 19th century tablecloth that had travelled to the US with Cat’s grandmother, and placed one of Tom’s paintings behind it. “We could really feel the love of our family, friends and the congregation during this momentous occasion,” Cat said.

JCC’s International Jewish Film Festival presents a virtual array of history, culture, and inspiration

by Shelley A. Sackett

MARBLEHEAD – The Jewish Community Center of the North Shore International Jewish Film Festival is celebrating its eighth year – and second straight virtually due to the ongoing COVID-19 restraints – with a diverse menu of 13 films inspired by Jewish history, culture, and values.

The festival runs from April 5 through April 25 and includes prerecorded and live Zoom conversations with filmmakers.

This year marks the first time the festival has partnered with the Central Mass International Jewish Film Festival, widening its audience to include the Worcester area. Tickets are $15 for individual films, with three discount packages for six, nine, or all 13 films. Films may be purchased ahead of time or when you are ready to watch. Eventbrite is the festival’s box office and screening platform, with tickets and information available at jccns.org.

Opening Night (April 5) presents the blockbuster “Six Minutes to Midnight,” starring Dame Judi Dench and Eddie Izzard. Set in 1939 at a finishing school in an English seaside town where influential families from Nazi Germany have sent their daughters, this taut, heart-racing espionage film heats up when a teacher figures out what is going on and tries to alert British authorities.

The social justice documentary, “Shared Legacies,” uses a treasure trove of archival materials to weave together crucial historical lessons of Black-Jewish alliances, starting with the founding of the NAACP in 1909. Narrated by eyewitnesses, activists, Holocaust survivors, and movement leaders, a prerecorded conversation with head writer-director Shari Rogers and members of the ADL’s Black-Jewish Alliance is included.

Among the other documentaries, “Code Name: Ayalon” recounts the 1975 discovery of The Ayalon Institute, a secret ammunition factory built by Haganah underground youth in 1947 during the British Mandate. The David vs. Goliath story includes interviews with surviving group members and a live discussion with the film’s producer, Laurel Fairworth, on April 21 at 7 p.m.

In 1977, Aulcie Perry, a basketball legend from Newark, New Jersey, was recruited by Maccabi Tel Aviv while playing a pickup game in Harlem. “Aulcie” chronicles this inspiring story and includes a live discussion with the director, Dani Menkin, and the raffle of a basketball signed by Aulcie on April 13 at 7 p.m.

Tamar Manasseh, the subject of “They Ain’t Ready for Me,” is a force to be reckoned with. Tired of the violence that has plagued her south side Chicago neighborhood, the Black rabbinical student builds bridges between her two worlds with grassroots activism and Jewish community celebrations. This timely and moving portrait includes a live discussion with director Brad Rothschild and Manasseh on April 23 at 7 p.m.

Filmed over 10 years, “A Lullaby for the Valley” introduces Eli Shamir, an Israeli artist who paints the view from his studio overlooking the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel. Director Ben Shani documents the artist at work, neither guessing at the changes that would occur over their decade together. A live discussion with the filmmaker is April 18 at 2 p.m.

The remaining seven features range from comedy to drama to historical docudrama. “Adventures of A Mathematician” reenacts the story of Stan Ulam, the brilliant Polish-Jewish scientist who worked on the top-secret Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb. A live discussion with the film’s team will take place on April 11 at 1 p.m. In “A Starry Sky Above the Roman Ghetto,” the discovery of a puzzling photograph sparks an Italian student to probe the history of Rome’s Jewish ghetto and the fate of one little girl.

Sparks fly in the screwball romantic comedy, “Kiss Me Kosher,” when two families from wildly different cultural backgrounds – German and Israeli – collide to plan a same-sex wedding. On a more serious but no less romantic note, the historical drama, “An Irrepressible Woman,” tells the true story of Janot Reichenbach, who fell in love with French-Jewish socialist and three-time Prime Minister Léon Blum when she was a teenager and abandoned all to be by his side decades later when the French government fell to the Nazis.

“Here We Are” is the touching story of a devoted father who has dedicated his life to raising his autistic son. The docudrama “Winter Journey” features Swiss actor Bruno Ganz in his final screen role. The film blends reenactments and archival materials to relate a Jewish-German couple’s poignant pre-World War II romance and is based on the book by their son, NPR radio host Martin Goldsmith.

Finally, closing night (April 25) showcases “The Crossing,” the story of Gerda and Otto, Norwegian siblings whose parents are arrested for resistance activities. They discover two Jewish children hidden in their basement, and decide to risk helping them cross into Sweden to escape the Nazis.

For more information and to buy tickets, visit jccns.eventive.org.

Gloucester violinist helps keep the sound of Yiddish music alive

Klezmer violinist Abigale Reisman recently received a grant from Club Passim’s music fund. Photo: Bryce Vickmark

by Shelley A. Sackett

Abigale Reisman was a 19-year-old undergraduate at The Manhattan School of Music when she fell in love. The classical violin performance major was listening to a lot of Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, but something was missing. She yearned for the Jewish music she grew up with in synagogue and Jewish day school, and the special place it had in her heart.

A friend suggested she check out a genre of music she had never heard of – klezmer – and for Reisman, it was obsession at first listen. Luckily, she lived in New York City, home to some of the leading klezmorim. She booked a private lesson with violinist Alicia Svigals (co-founder of the Grammy-winning band The Klezmatics), and attended KlezKamp – a yearly Klezmer music and Yiddish culture festival – in the Catskills.

“It was a beautiful introduction to the klezmer world and I never left,” Reisman said from her Gloucester home.

Almost 15 years later, the Atlanta native is a violinist, composer, and educator. She wears many musical hats, from klezmer and classical to experimental and pop. She is a cofounder of Thread Ensemble, an experimental trio that creates music out of interactions with their audiences; a member of Tredici Bacci, which was featured in Rolling Stone’s “10 Artists You Need to Know: November 2016;” and a composer, arranger, and performer in the International Jewish Music Festival award-winning band, Ezekiel’s Wheels Klezmer Band.

Although Reisman doesn’t have a favorite musical genre (“I love it all in different ways”), she plans to focus her energy on recording a series of videos that explore the treasures of the Jewish violin, thanks to a grant from Club Passim’s Iguana Music Fund.

Her purpose is two-fold: To create and release her own interpretation of the music she loves so dearly, and to reveal to the average Jewish music listener the complex history of the violin in East European Jewish music.

“The fidl [Yiddish for violin] truly mimics the human voice, especially the cantorial sound,” Reisman said. “It speaks in Yiddish sentences and gestures. It plays pieces full of bubbling trills, moans, slides, and specifically Jewish phrasing.”

The grant money will ensure the sound and video qualities of her recordings will capture these subtleties.

Since 2008, the Iguana Music Fund has awarded gifts annually to musicians for career building projects and for those that provide community service through music. Abby Altman, Club Passim manager, said Reisman is known for being part of great ensembles. Her application stood out because it focused on her as a solo artist working in a genre she is passionate about.

“We’re excited to see what she creates when she is in complete control of the material,” Altman said.

Reisman’s target audience for her videos is both the casual Jewish music listener and the next generation of serious klezmer violinists. Although most contemporary audiences think of the clarinet as klezmer’s dominant melodic instrument, for hundreds of years the violin was the epicenter of Eastern European shtetl music. Reisman wants to introduce this fidl-centric music to those whose only exposure has been to the 20th century jazz-influenced clarinet-centric version of klezmer.

She also wants to provide serious klezmer violinists with 21st century videos that contain both archival repertoires and clear views of the technical aspects of playing klezmer. Reisman recalled she didn’t know where to turn to when she started to play klezmer fidl. The only archival recordings she found were scratchy and difficult to decipher. She wants her videos to make it easier for violinists to get an immediate sense of the music they could play. “I also want to lure them into listening to the archival recordings,” she said.

Ashkenazi Jewish culture has played a large part in Reisman’s life since she was a child. “It creates a beautiful community and gives me a familiar access point to spirituality, morality, and kindness,” she said. She remembers feeling especially connected to Judaism as a young Jewish day school student. “I liked following rules and they had a lot of rules,” she said with a chuckle.

COVID-19 has been hard for her and her musician husband, Charles Clements. Although Reisman lost a lot of summer gigs (weddings, outdoor festivals, etc.), she has been able to teach and perform virtually and has helped create an online global klezmer community.

She’s also been able to slow down and think about the future of her career and the important, constructive role artists play in safeguarding our humanity. “This is why I’ve finally been able to conceive of the start of this project that has been in the back of my mind for so many years,” she said.

To learn more and listen to Abigale Reisman’s music, visit abigalereisman.com.

From Marblehead to Hollywood, where she now makes movies that touch the soul

Filmmaker Jerri Sher and former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien on the set of “Quiet Explosions: Healing the Brain.”

by Shelley A. Sackett

Jerri Sher is no shrinking violet.

In the 1980s, she and her husband Alan, a tax accountant, were raising their family in Marblehead. Their daughters, Heather and Amy, attended Hillel Academy (now the Epstein Hillel School), and Alan volunteered as treasurer of the Jewish Journal. After teaching at Endicott College, Jerri decided to enter the business world. But, she didn’t just quietly switch careers; she smashed through a glass ceiling as the first woman to work in the transportation industry in the Northeast corridor.

Sher rose quickly in the sales and marketing department at Guaranteed Overnight Delivery, where she was trained by Tony Robbins, the top life coach and business strategist. “The male-oriented industry of transportation was difficult because people were not used to dealing with a woman, so I had to prove myself to be better than any man,” she said from her Los Angeles home.
Sher learned on the job, and she learned fast, negotiating freight contracts for Fortune 500 companies such as Gillette and Raytheon. “Little did I know that all of the skills I was learning were getting me ready to be a producer,” Sher said.

Sher’s schooling and first career were in the arts. The Fall River native earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a master’s in art education from Springfield College, where she later became its youngest professor. Despite a demanding schedule in the trucking business, her creative drive never slowed down. With no formal training, she wrote a novel about a woman in the trucking business. “The Twig Painter,” a medical thriller that became a screenplay, fused her two careers – art teacher/painter and trucking sales representative – and wet her appetite for her third: movie screenwriter, director, and producer.

She dove in, determined to learn as much as she could about the filmmaking process. She helped out on any movie set that came to the North Shore and before long, one director recognized her business smarts and creative skills and told her she should set her sights on being a producer rather than “just” an art director.

Although a member of the elite LA-based Directors Guild since 1998, she had no access to its benefits from Massachusetts. After successfully producing several movies for others, she decided it was time to direct her own. “I was in my mid 50s when I said, ‘let’s move to LA,’” Sher said.

That was 18 years ago.

Other than missing friends and family, Sher found Hollywood spectacular. Despite never attending film school, her career flourished as she finally had direct entrée into the hub of the industry’s network. “I knew I was right where I was supposed to be,” she said.

Although Sher faced obstacles as a woman in another male-dominated industry, she already had overcome that challenge once and never let it bother her. “I am proving myself in this industry and am climbing to the top of the ladder despite the discrimination,” she said. “The word ‘no’ did not exist in my vocabulary. I had all the tools I needed to make films and thrive.”

Sher has since completed 22 film and television projects, including “Santa Monica Cares Step Up,” which earned her 2014 Emmy awards for directing and producing. This short documentary film, about a homeless man rescued by charity, was the highlight of Sher’s career. “It made me realize I only wanted to work on projects that would positively influence society,” she said.
Her latest film, “Quiet Explosions: Healing the Brain,” is a documentary about traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, athletes, and others. Released last month on Amazon and Vimeo, the film explores under-publicized, non-pharmaceutical approaches that have led to complete healing in brain injury patients.

Based on “Tales from the Blast Factory,” the book by brothers Andrew and Adam Marr, the film highlights the breakthrough work of Dr. Daniel Amen (psychiatrist, clinical neuroscientist, and brain imaging specialist) and neuro-endocrinologist Dr. Mark L. Gordon, whose patients have been cured by his treatments. Super Bowl MVP Mark Rypien, Ben Driebergen (winner of “Survivor” and ex-Marine), and Shawn Dollar (champion surfer) tell their heart-wrenching stories of trauma and recovery. Podcast host Joe Rogan, an active Wounded Warriors supporter, interviews Gordon and Andrew Marr.

Although the film’s 10 characters are from all different walks of life with different clinical histories, they share one thing: at some point, each wanted to commit suicide. After watching the film together, they cried and hugged each other, grateful that others might understand the agony they had suffered.

“For Dr. Gordon, a neuro-endocrinologist, to come up with this treatment is mind boggling. Why does the whole world not know about this?” Sher asked. Her hope is her film will educate its audience ‒ especially doctors – about these groundbreaking solutions that help those with traumatic brain injury to heal.

Sher had a solid foundation in Judaism, and credits her Jewish background with steering her artistic choices and storytelling toward messages of tikkun olam (repairing the world). “I am definitely all about healing the planet and the people on it. Most of my recent projects are about healing and health,” she said.

Right now, however, she has two goals. One is for an Oscar to keep her two Emmy awards company. The second is to get the Veterans Administration to institute Dr. Gordon’s protocol. “And if we can do that, then I’ve done so much for society,” Sher said.

For more information, visit jerrisher.com and quietexplosions.com.

‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ wrestles with keeping the (Jewish) faith when bad things happen to good people

Rabbi Michael (Diane Di Bernardo) and Joey Brant (Peter Palmisano) prepare for Joey’s upcoming adult Bar Mitzvah in ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy.’

By Shelley A. Sackett

Right out of the gate, playwright Mark Leiren-Young challenges his audience to leave their assumptions in the (virtual) lobby. ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy,’ his prize-winning 90-minute two-hander, opens as a young woman wearing jogging gear, baseball cap and rock-blasting ear buds pauses by a bench, then continues on the wooded trail, straight up the front steps of a stately mid-20th century synagogue.

Inside the rabbi’s office, a 60ish man, dressed in full rabbinic regalia —  gray suit, tallis (prayer shawl), kippah and tefilln (phylacteries) — pulls a book from the book shelf. He sits at his desk, poring over it somberly, as a woman’s nasal voice bleats over a tinny loudspeaker, “Rabbi. You’ve got a visitor.”

The jogger enters and freezes. “Excuse me?” she says with ambiguous inflection. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m waiting for someone,” the man replies. In the first of many twists meant to keep us untethered, it turns out the woman is Rabbi Michael Levitz-Sharon (Diane Di Bernardo) and the man, a prosperous divorce attorney, is Joey Brant (Peter Palmisano).

Joey has a mission; he begs her to prepare him for a traditional Bar Mitzvah. He is desperate to carry on this family practice before his grandson, Ben, celebrates his own Bar Mitzvah the following week in the same synagogue, but “no one can know.” Rabbi Michael objects, complaining only a magician could pull off such a feat, but when Joey deploys his talent for persuasion, she reluctantly agrees to take him on as a student.

These opening scenes lay the groundwork for this thinly-plotted, character-driven play, and establish Leiren-Young as a gifted craftsman. The dialogue is witty, smart and fast, full of one-liners and prickly punch lines delivered by two talented actors. Although Joey and Rabbi Michael initially seem poles apart, the more they talk, the more their chemistry grows. They riff off each other. Both make their livings through words, and they delight in the gamesmanship of debate. They are skilled active listeners and articulate, honest responders. They share a sense of humor which has helped each navigate life’s hardships and disappointments. And they both wear their hearts — and their pain — on their sleeves.

Yet, on other levels, the two couldn’t be more different. Joey is impatient, pushy and demanding, a man who knows what he wants and is used to getting it. He abandoned Judaism 52 years ago and hasn’t  been in a synagogue since.

Rabbi Michael, on the other hand, is a third-generation rabbi who entered the “family business” because she wanted to help people. She is in love with the sense of home she gets every time she enters any synagogue, anyplace in the world. Her faith is her bedrock;  her community, her lifeline.

As the play evolves, the tenor of their conversation deepens and Leiren-Young lets his characters ask the question the audience has been pining to have answered. “Why are you here?” Rabbi Michael finally asks. Joey replies, “I want to believe in God,” but admits he has trouble when he sees “stuff like this,” referring to Rachel, the 11-year-old terminal cancer victim he saw at services the previous Saturday. “She’s my daughter,” Rabbi Michael (whose name, ironically, means “beloved of God) answers, and with that, ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ shifts gears as the two join forces in their quest to make sense of Judaism in the light of unspeakable tragedies.

The pitch of their conversations deepens in intellectual, spiritual and emotional tone as their relationship morphs from teacher/student to trusting friends. The rabbi shepherds Joey on his journey of Jewish rediscovery despite her breaking heart, putting on a “good face” for her congregation and supporting her daughter’s desire is to be called to the Torah as a Bat Mitzvah before she dies. She candidly admits that Rachel’s imminent passing and the marital separation it caused has stressed her faith to the breaking point. Whether it will survive her death is anyone’s guess.

Joey, too, lets down his guard and reveals the real reason he never had a Bar Mitzvah. For him, a Bar Mitzvah doesn’t represent a coming-of-age rite; it is a coming-back-to-faith turning point.

Joey and Rabbi Michael’s meaty discussions about the Bible as metaphor, miracles, forgiveness, tragedies, and what it means to “feel” Jewish are certainly heady and thought provoking. ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ is, after all, a Jewish play with a universal story about keeping faith when bad things happen to good people.

But at the end of the day, these scholarly concepts alone can’t save them. Rather, it is their personal connection as caring friends that helps them build a bridge over the rough waters of their doubts, and their shared faith in the power of community that might just carry them across.

‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ — Written by Mark Leiren-Young; Directed by Saul Elkin; Produced by David Bunis; Managing Director- Jordana Halpern; Stage Manager- Keelin Higgins; Set Design by David Dwyer; Costume Design by Ann Emo; Sound Design by Nicholas Quin. Presented by Jewish Repertory Theatre. ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ is available for digital download from November 5-25. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit jccns.org/event/bar-mitzvah-boy/

‘Manifest Destiny’s Child’ or True Confessions of a Regretful 2016 Jill Stein Supporter

Dennis Trainor Jr in “Manifest Destiny’s Child

by Shelley A. Sackett

‘Manifest Destiny’s Child’ is a dramatization of Dennis Trainor, Jr.’s true story about his personal involvement in all things social justice, from protesting at Standing Rock and Occupy Wall Street to his hosting and writing the nationally syndicated news and politics show Acronym TV to, ultimately, becoming Communications Director of Dr. Jill Stein’s ill-fated third party run for President in 2016.

Created as a memoir at Boston’s creative writing space, Grub Street, Trainor decided to morph the piece into a one-man show. While he and director Jeff Wise wisely interspliced actual footage from the protests and Stein’s campaigns, that footage spotlights Trainor, either as participant or interviewer. Coupled with the remainder of the 63-minutes that focuses on Trainor as a talking head either in emotive full face  or — annoyingly — in static profile, that’s a LOT of on-screen Trainor, his Robert Downey, Jr./Matthew Perry appeal  notwithstanding.

Dennis Trainor Jr arrested in the Hart Senate Office Building during the Occupy Wall Street movement, October 2011. Image: Screenshot/ Manifest Destiny’s Child / AcronymTV.org

It’s hard to get a handle on Trainor’s point at first. We are introduced to his comfortable, well-appointed bourgeois lifestyle (love the art work!), his mid-life professional crisis and his inviolable weekly date nights with his wife. We also glimpse his rage and disappointment at “Trumplandia” and receive a history lesson on “Manifest Destiny,” the widely held 19th century American imperialist belief that American expansion throughout the continent was both justifiable and inevitable.

“How did we get into this Trump mess?” Trainor bemoans. “Inequality and poverty are not an accident. They are human made.”

Finally, some 20 minutes in, Trainor throws us a contextual lifeline. It is 2015 and, seemingly out of the blue, Dr. Jill Stein asks him to be her Communications Director for her presidential campaign. Trainor, flattered and relieved to have something meaningful to do with his life, accepts her offer. Nine months later, he quit but not before amassing a trove of frustrations and disappointments that he can’t wait to share.

The show sometimes feels like a TED talk, and perhaps that’s a venue Trainor should explore, since those parts of the piece feel most authentic and are most engaging. He holds forth on the history of third parties in American politics and the narrow but important victories they won, such as the end of slavery by the then third-party Republican party and women’s right to vote by the Woman Suffrage Party.

Yet, through the whining and misgivings, one can’t help wondering: Why did he work for Stein if he knew she would never be president? Why did she run if not to win?

Trainor’s point (and it is an excellent one) is that Stein should have set her sights on getting the Green New Deal passed rather than securing the presidency, which was completely beyond her grasp. However, she stubbornly stayed in the fray, eventually (in Trainor’s tortured mind) drawing enough votes away from Clinton to result in Trump’s victory. And he was her willing accomplice.

Although he quit Stein’s campaign after nine months, he returned a year later as an independent contractor handling her media (or “sales,” as he aptly puts it). Trainor feels residual existential guilt over his part in her toxic and unproductive run, and this is where the show changes tenor from memoir to chest-beating therapy, which is too bad.

Turns out, however, Trainor and Stein had more in common than not: they share an almost masochistic compulsion to make arguments and fight battles they are certain to lose. “Throwing sand at tsunamis,” he names it.

The piece does end on an upbeat note, heralding  revolutionary struggles that can actually be won, like Occupy Wall Street and Standing Rock. Still, it’s hard not to worry about Trainor personally. If the 2016 election threw him into a tailspin of depressing hours spent on Facebook, Twitter and list making, how must he be coping with that scenario redux and COVID?

‘Manifest Destiny’s Child’ — Written and performed by Dennis Trainor, Jr.; Directed by Jeff Wise and Dennis Trainor; Presented by Acronym TV. 

Manifest Destiny’s Child will stream on-demand October 24st — November 8th, 2020 here: https://acronymtv.org/mdc

Gloucester Stage Company Serves Up Full-Bodied Blues in ‘Paradise Blue’

by Shelley A. Sackett

There’s a raw poetic cadence to the dazzling dialogue of playwright Dominique Morisseau’s final play in her trilogy set in different decades in Detroit. It’s 1949, and the downtown Blackbottom entertainment district is home to many black-owned jazz clubs, including the Paradise Club. Director Jackie Davis sets the tone immediately. Against an opening montage of black and white period photos and a pained, bone-melting trumpet solo,  we hear a single gunshot. This film noir trope is a perfect entrance into ‘Paradise Blue’ and an introduction to the complicated passions that drive its five characters.

Although a structurally imperfect play, Morisseau has served up a piece of theatrical pie rich in language, character development and emotional impact. Despite the virtual production (done zoom-like with seated actors who address the camera full on), the superb cast delivers the caliber of performances that suck the audience right in, dissolving the cyber barrier.  Davis uses a stage direction reader (Aimee Hamrick) to keep the production moving. Hamrick’s “just the facts-ma’am” efficient and unobtrusive narration adds another layer of Sam Spade noir. Once again, Gloucester Stage Company has gifted its theater-hunger fans with a satisfying and innovative armchair experience.

All the action takes place in the Paradise Club, a jazz and drinks joint that both exalts and entombs Blue (Ricardo Engermann), its owner, bandleader and tortured trumpeter. Although lean and small boned, Blue casts a long shadow and his moodiness hangs like an ominous dark cloud over his head. His club is staffed by his affable and hardworking girlfriend-cook-housekeeper Pumpkin (played with confidence and self-effacement by Meagan Dilworth) and his bandmates, piano man Cornelius (Cliff Odle) and drummer P-Sam (Omar Robinson). The topic at hand is how to keep the music going in the absence of the group’s bassist, whom Blue fired after getting into a row with him.

To make ends meet, Blue decides to advertise a room for rent. When the sultry, sexy Silver (Ramona-Lisa Alexander) shows up to answer the ad wearing a red hat and carrying a wad of cash, a loaded pistol and a steamy look that could liquefy lacquer, the play’s pulse quickens. Although Alexander is seated throughout the reading, her voice and gestures spellbind the audience with their overwhelming sensuality and physicality. She is unmistakably a woman used to using her charisma and beauty to charm men into doing what she wants them to do. In Alexander’s exceptional hands, she is indeed a black widow, drawing us into her web every time she looks our way.

Although the 2hour24 minute production gets off to a slow and stilted start, once Silver shows up, there’s an uptick that is sustained until the end. This play is not plot driven; rather it is a snapshot glimpse through the keyhole of five multi-dimensional lives in Black Detroit in 1949. Morisseau’s gifted dialogue lets her characters’ layered stories slowly unfold through their rich and intimate conversations and confrontations with each other. It’s a treat to be a fly on these walls.

Pumpkin, the literal heart of the play and its moral compass, is sensitive and caring. She even carries a book of poetry which she is intent on memorizing just because of its beauty. Despite Blue’s depression and habit of manhandling her, Pumpkin only sees the goodness in him. “A woman’s job is to ease a man’s troubles. This man has a gift. Makes me feel like somebody just to be close to it,” she tells Silver.

Silver couldn’t be a starker contrast. She is aggressive, suspicious and competitive. She is also heartbreakingly sensitive, seeing demons everywhere, from the white world in which a Black man struggles to exist to her own barren womb. “I’m cursed. What’s a woman if she ain’t bearing fruit?” she confides to the sympathetic, compassionate Cornelius (whom she takes as her lover).

Although the three males are less clearly delineated, their portrayers do a splendid job of bringing them to life. Engermann plays Blue with a Denzel Washington fluid and easy delivery, his voice like caramel with a dusting of sandpaper. His and Alexander’s (Silver) phrasings, cadences and pauses are breathtakingly spot on. Odle as Corn is accessible and gentle, a wise and wizened elder statesman. Robinson does the best he can with the thinly drawn P-Sam.

While Morisseau excels at teasing out the nuances of personal relationships, her structural shortcomings in three important areas diminish her audience’s ability to appreciate her artistic intent: (1) Detroit Mayor Albert Cobo’s platform promoting urban gentrification and the buying of black businesses to cure “urban/black blight” is essential background information only obliquely referenced; (2) as the play’s principal character, Blue is underdeveloped; we need more of his backstory told by- not about- him, and (3) the ending feels out of step, strained and jarring.

Notwithstanding, ‘Paradise Blue’ is well worth the stamina required to watch and highly recommended for its superb acting, fabulous soundtrack and inspired production. Once again, Kudos to Gloucester Stage Company for raising the virtual bar yet again.

‘Paradise Blue’ — Written by Dominique Morisseau; Directed by Jackie Davis; Produced by Gloucester Stage Company at Oneline/Virtual Space, as part of its 2020 Never Dark Series. Streaming online October 1-4 at https://gloucesterstage.com/battle-not-begun/

JCCNS Jewish Book Month Speaker Series goes virtual

Jason Rosenthal, seen with his late wife, Amy, will open the series on Oct. 6.

by Shelley A. Sackett

MARBLEHEAD – With hurricane season, daylight savings time and the election looming just around the corner, we could all use an engaging and stimulating indoor activity to look forward to during these trying COVID-19 times.

To the rescue is the 2020 virtual Jewish Community Center of the North Shore’s Jewish Book Month Speaker Series with a line-up of 12 outstanding authors who will literally travel right into your living room and share their books.

“Books are a way into people’s souls. Arts and culture are a non-threatening way for people to have a Jewish identity,” Suzanne Swift, Jewish Book Council Director of Author Network, told the Journal. JBC provides resources and support to Jewish organizations, including the JCCNS.

From Tuesday, Oct. 6 through Sunday, Nov. 29, the annual JBM speaker series offers an especially broad selection of genres and topics, including memoir, history, fiction, humor and – of course – food.

JBM chair Diane Knopf acknowledges there is a silver lining to mounting the series during a pandemic. “There is no geographical barrier to participate in a virtual series” she said.

Jason Rosenthal, who will open the series on Oct. 6 with his memoir, “My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me,” lived in a romantic fairytale for the 26 years he was married to his bashert (soulmate), Amy, a writer and filmmaker until she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her last project before she died in 2017 was an op-ed piece for the “Modern Love” column of the New York Times entitled, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” expressing her wish for her beloved Jason to remarry. It was published right after her death, catching Jason completely by surprise.

His book describes his life with Amy and their three children (the “Rosies”) and how he coped with his grief and loss. Judaism played a big role in his upbringing and in the family he and Amy raised in Chicago (regular Friday night Shabbat dinners, Jewish day school for his kids). “Shabbat dinners meant slowing down from a hectic week. Simple. Quietly reverent. And always full of gratitude,” he told the Journal.

After Amy’s death, however, he sought comfort elsewhere. “I look more to other spiritual elements in my life; mindfulness, meditation and yoga come to mind,” he said.

Although he shares some upbeat stories about women who wrote to him after they read Amy’s column, his aim is to help others. “Grief is a beast and a non-linear process,” he explained. “Ultimately, my book is filled with a message of hope and resilience. One never ‘gets over’ grief; we move through it.”

Other memoirs in the series include: “On My Watch” by local author Virginia Buckingham, who was head of Logan Airport on 9/11 and bore public blame for “letting it happen,” and “What We Will Become” by Mimi Lemay, a woman raised in an ultra-orthodox Jewish family who supported her transgender child’s odyssey.

On the fiction stage are Lynda Cohen Loigman’s “The Wartime Sisters,” the story of two estranged sisters reunited at the Springfield, Massachusetts armory during the early days of WWII, and Anna Solomon’s Good Morning America Book Club pick, “The Book of V.”

In “The Book of V,” Solomon intertwines the individual stories of three women: a Brooklyn mother in 2016; a senator’s wife in Watergate-era 1970s Washington, D.C., and the Bible’s Queen Esther in ancient Persia.

Solomon, who grew up in Gloucester and whose mother was the first female president of Temple Ahavat Achim, reconnected with the story of Esther when she read it to her own children. She was struck by how many questions the story raised, especially about Queen Vashti (executed after disobeying her husband, the king), who had fascinated her since she was a little girl.

“What did she do that was so bad? That was the mystery I wanted to unravel,” she told the Journal. “I also wanted to explore how our notions of a bad and good woman have and haven’t changed over time, and how we continue to reduce women to types.”

Solomon was born in the late 1970s when, for some women, it seemed gender equality had been achieved. “But anyone can see that’s not the case today. I wanted to play around with what it means to experience life in a way that doesn’t match what you’re being told. These three women all take charge of their own story in some way,” she said.

She hopes the book’s call for more connection and less competition among women resonates with her readers. “Let’s judge each other – and ourselves – less and reach out across our supposed differences more,” she said.

Fans of nonfiction and investigative reporting will also be thrilled. Longtime BBC correspondent Raffi Berg will discuss his “Red Sea Spies: The True Story of Mossad’s Fake Diving Resort,” the story of undercover Israeli spies who staffed a luxury resort on the Sudanese coast and secretly evacuated thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

Local author Eric Jay Dolin covers the history of American hurricanes from Columbus’s landing to contemporary climate change in “A Furious Sky,” and Kristen Fermaglich’s “A Rosenberg by Any Other Name” chronicles the impact of name change on American Jews. “The Last Kings of Shanghai” by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Kaufman recounts the remarkable history of two wealthy and powerful Jewish families who helped shape China’s economic boom.

On a lighter note are Iris Krasnow’s “Camp Girls” (about the joy and lasting importance of the summer camp experience); Rachel Levin’s “Eat Something” (part comedy, part cookbook and part nostalgic journey). Alan Zweibel, an original Saturday Night Live writer who got his start selling jokes on the Borscht Belt circuit, shares his own stories and interviews with friends in the riotous “Laugh Lines.”

For more information and to buy tickets, visit jccns.org.

The 1938 Munich Agreement Is Unmasked in Gloucester Stage Company’s Inventive ‘The Battle Not Begun’

by Shelley A. Sackett

Those of us who eschew the national news in favor of mental equilibrium and spiritual health should be forewarned: it is nearly impossible to watch this historically grounded play and not draw some scary parallels to global current events. The points between 1938 and 2020 beg to be connected.

That said, ‘The Battle Not Begun,’ written by playwright and NPR news analyst Jack Beatty, is as artistically absorbing as it is factually repellant. Under Myriam Cyr’s tight editing and sharp-eyed direction, the audience becomes a fly on the wall at the fateful meeting between Adolph Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain that gave Hitler a green light to launch what became World War II.

A little historical background may be helpful. (I offer this lengthy intro because, as one whose knowledge of WWII is admittedly gauzy, I wish I had this primer before sitting down to watch the play.)

After the First World War ended in 1918, the map of Europe was redrawn and several new countries were formed, including Czechoslovakia. As a result, three million Germans found themselves living under Czech rule in the Sudetenland. In 1938, when Hitler came to power, he vowed to reunite Germans into one nation, starting with the cessation to Germany of the “Sudeten German territory.”

Incited by Hitler’s rhetoric, Sudeten Germans rioted and deliberately provoked violence by the Czech police. Hitler falsely claimed that the police killed 300 Germans during these protests.  With this weaponized “fake news” as justification, Hitler immediately placed German troops along the Czech border and announced his intention to annex it. Chamberlain flew to Hitler’s private mountaintop retreat to try to forge an agreement to bring “peace for our time” and avoid further Nazi aggression. (This meeting is the setting for ‘The Battle Not Begun.’)

Instead, Chamberlain caved to Hitler’s every demand about the Sudetenland in the naïve belief that, in exchange, Hitler would honor his end of the bargain and not seek additional territory in Europe. Hitler lied, astutely outplaying Chamberlain. Chamberlain loudly touted the pact as a personal triumph and Britain’s legacy for peace by negotiation. History has since dubbed the Munich Agreement shorthand for “a failed act of appeasement” and a symbol for the futility of placating expansionist totalitarian states.

An inventive film/theater/re-enactment hybrid, ‘The Battle Not Begun’ sets its period mood from the outset. TV/movie-like credits roll over a 1938 tinted photo, slowly panned in a Ken Burns-esque manner. Adolf Hitler (played with technicolor panache by the  supremely talented Ken Bolden) appears full frame in all his stereotypic glory. He paces, prances, preens and snarls, almost simultaneously. This is not someone who plays hide the ball. As Chamberlain waits offstage, he wastes no time telling the audience exactly what he thinks of this “Calvin Coolidge less the exuberance” who is all “grey competence.”

Enter Chamberlain (Malcolm Ingram, who maintains an implacably stiff upper lip and air of entitled aristocracy throughout the performance), as if on cue. He is as polite, deferential and serious as Hitler is insulting and crass. The worst that can be said of Chamberlain’s behavior is that he is a snob and a stick-in-the-mud.

For the rest of the 97-minute production, we have a ring-side seat as these two slug out a resolution to the situation in Czechoslovakia. Along the way, we learn much about these men and what makes each tick. Chamberlain, the white glove diplomat who grew up with a platinum spoon in his mouth, is dispassionate and clinical. He never had actual boots on any war-torn ground, and, while he is no humanist (he disdains the Czechs-and Slavs in general- as much as Hitler does), he is also no savage. He is petty and obsessed with his public image and avenging the humiliation he suffered at the hands of Prime Minister Lloyd George. But he also believes in the sanctity of human life. “When lives are at stake, every chance of peace must be explored,” he implores. “War is a nightmare.”

Hitler, on the other hand, grew up friendless, homeless and impoverished in Vienna. He found peace, meaning and acceptance as a soldier during WWI.  “War is not a nightmare to me. It is life unmasked,” he explains. “War is the great equalizer of class. All are equal in the trenches.” Avenging Germany’s defeat has been his life’s sole mission since 1918.

By the play’s end, we sense that anything negotiated by these two men is doomed to failure; they are simply too different, unable to speak the same language or play by the same rules. No matter what they draft and sign, it cannot be binding because it cannot be translated.

“I became me in war. You became you in a peace that ground every German face to the ground,” Hitler says, as if providing a proof text.

‘The Battle Not Begun-Munich 1938:The Brink of War’ – Written by Jack Beatty; Directed by Miriam Myriam Cyr; Produced by Gloucester Stage Company at Oneline/Virtual Space in collaboration with Punctuate4, an all-female led production company based on the North Shore, as part of its 2020 Never Dark Series. Streaming online September 3-6 at https://gloucesterstage.com/battle-not-begun/