Let us bring you some light

Suddenly we all are holding hands and swinging
Doubling our smiles and tripling love and blessing
Adding up to one so helping keeps us free
That is what we learn and teach the world to be

By Becky Skoff

These words are from Suddenly Perfectly, the first English translation of the Hebrew song Tov Lanu Pitom, by Rafi ben Moshe. The song appears in the musical version of the iconic Israeli book Simlat HaShabbat Shel Hannale (Hanna’s Sabbath Dress), by Itzhak Schweiger Dmi’el. We have translated it for an American audience for our original musical, Hanna’s Moonlit Dress, which we are presenting in just two weeks at the 14th Street Y.

These words are a little hard to absorb right now. As the voices of talented young actors fill the halls of our preschool, smiles on their faces and enthusiasm in their dance-steps, I find myself wondering: is this a message parents want to hear right now? Will they feel moved to get up and dance with their children? Are they ready to smile? Will they even come?

Our team at LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture at the 14th Street Y has been working since fall 2011 to bring these words and their story onto the stage and into the hearts of the Jewish community. Now, two weeks before we open a 3 week run of our play, it is almost ironic that we are staging a show about idealism, unity, good deeds and self-sacrifice, for an audience largely heart-broken by recent events that have called these values into question.

I originally fell in love with this book because of its vision of optimism, hope, and promise. The story seems deceptively simple: a young girl – Hanna – lives alone with her mother. Her mother has stayed up late at night, laboring over the creation of a beautiful, white Sabbath dress for her daughter. Soon, Hanna finds herself in a predicament: a stranger, carrying a large sack of coal, is in need of her help. But if she helps him, her new, white dress may be ruined. Of course, Hanna makes the right choice, and magic ensues, leading us to this cheerful song, a talking moon, and a lesson in how easy it can be to bring warmth to others.

You may wonder what a coal man was doing in Israel. Itzhak Schweiger Dmi’el wrote Simlat HaShabnat Shel Hannale in 1930s British Mandate Palestine, and published the story in Davar, the influential workers’ newspaper. The coal man – along with the absence of Hanna’s father – is symbolic of the suffering, isolation, and incompleteness of the Jewish people at this moment in time. Pre-state Israel was a time of dreaming. Most people had very little and were struggling just to survive. Dmi’el wrote this story for a community of big dreamers – people who believed that with every seed planted, they were creating a better future for the Jewish people.  This was the idealistic, pioneering vision of Israel; a vision of pure hope and promise.

Fast forward to today. The idea of helping a stranger struggling with his workload becomes equally relevant.  How can we help the coal men in our society – both in America and in Israel? Where is the little girl in a white dress, willing to get dirty to do the right thing? When will the moon be ready to give us some magic to help ease the way?

I don’t have all the answers right now, but I do know this: I need a positive way to talk to my son about the power of doing good in the world. He needs to see examples of the joy of community, and of love for each other.  I need to sing, dance and smile with my child. I need a little joy in my life too, and a reminder of the power of idealism. We all do.

If you are ready to emerge from your cloud of disbelief and anxiety, open the curtain with us in the coming weeks. Come be transported to another world and time. The clouds may still be there when you leave the theater, but I promise: you’ll leave with a little more light in your heart.

Adding up to one so helping keeps us free
That is what we learn and teach the world to be

Hanna and the Moonlit Dress plays December 2-18 at the Theater at the 14th Street Y, at 344 East 14th Street.  For tickets, please visit 14StreetY.org/Hanna

ORIENTED: Thoughts from Director, Jake Witzenfeld

“I’m figuring out where I stand on a lot of central identity issues:

what being Jewish means to me,

what Israel means to me… “

A few thoughts by the Director of the ORIENTED, Jake Witzenfeld:

other media 2other media 1

How did the making of the movie come about?

Jake : I came across a YouTube video by a group called Qambuta. It was a stylish protest piece by a group of visibly Palestinian 20-somethings pointing the finger at the heteronormative values of their community in Israel. I was so intrigued by that identity complex: too gay for the Arab sub-community in Israel, too Palestinian for the Jewish majority… a minority inside a minority. I was able to reach out to Khader, the ring leader, through my roommate at the time. We went for drinks, he told me that there was “a Palestinian Woodstock” cultural revival kicking off in Israel, he captivated me with charisma and a nonchalant yet fierce desire for change. I asked him if I could begin shooting him and his world and he agreed. Two years and a little change later, we had a film!


What is a surprising fact that you discovered during the making of Oriented?

Jake: When I started making the film, I felt that I was really capturing a peaking of social activism – like I was following Rosa Parks to the back of the bus. But as the boys did not deliver a revolution, I became frustrated and began questioning that feeling and my own disappointment that they weren’t “giving me” a radical crescendo of change. That’s when I discovered that social change isn’t made the way it is recorded in text books. While successful social action influences macro-narratives, it is made up of micro-actions, attitudes and decisions: where are you partying, who are you dating, what are you posting… that’s what informed the film’s primarily personal approach and storytelling decision.


What world did you discover in Tel Aviv that you didn’t know about?

Jake: The underground gay Palestinian scene. I was aware of it but after Khader welcomed me to begin shooting, I met everyone and saw every spot and really got a 360. We transitioned into friendship very seamlessly and the filmmaking become a very personal journey for all of us.


How has it changed you?

Jake: I believe that I achieved a reflexivity with my subject that required me to mute my own cultural baggage and pre-conceptions. And you don’t just switch that off after final cut and go back to your old ways. I’m figuring out where I stand on a lot of central identity issues: what being Jewish means to me, what Israel means to me… I’ve never felt more unsure on any of those things but, simultaneously, I feel that this new web of interactions and conversations that I’ve entangled myself in has an underlying optimism to it. So let’s see.


What questions will you have afterwards?

Come see ORIENTED November 7th at 8pm at the Theater at the 14th Street Y

Stay after the screening for wine & conversation with the filmmakers and protagonist, Khader Abu Seif

For tickets to ORIENTED click here

USE  CODE: LGBTQ for $9 Tickets

Find out more about other screenings at The Other Israel Film Festival here



Meet LABA Fellows: Maxx and Rebecca

maxxbecks_headshot-150x150LABA Fellows, Rebecca Margolick and Maxx Berkowitz are a Brooklyn-based integrative and experimental performance collaborative.

What drew you to apply to LABA?

As a musician and media design technologist and a dancer/choreographer, we had been examining how to develop our artistic and creative growth by working together. After learning of the 14th Street Y’s program LABA and its focus on cross-disciplinary art forms in a Jewish context, we felt that it would be the perfect forum to present our ideas and the new work we had been thinking about.

Why do you want to study beauty?

Beauty is an undeniable force in influencing how we act, respond and make decisions. We’re interested in studying how the online world has influenced our perceptions, changed our sense of attraction and glorified our base instincts of voyeurism and false affection. We want to encourage people to think about how we are affected as a race in this world of hyper-realism and unrealistic expectations of beauty and accomplishment.


Check out Maxx & Rebecca’s past work:  

Maxx’s band- Twin Waves



Rebecca’s project-  It fit when I was a kid



This live performance, which layers dance and interactive media, explores how the ever increasing time we spend consumed by technology and the online world can profoundly shape our self image, emotional stability, and relationships with others.

The work revolves around two characters and the ensuing degradation of their physical and emotional communication to each other and themselves. The ever increasing deluge of information and distraction of the virtual world, so ingrained in their everyday lives, ultimately distances them from reality. The dichotomy of these characters’ responses to the ever-increasing flow of stimuli and mass-produced image of beauty (whether for the better or to their own detriment) is the momentum behind this creative exploration.

Read more about Maxx and Rebecca and their LABA project HERE

Valuing the Humanity in Each Person – B’tzelem Elohim

By Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein, Executive Director


Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein
Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein

This has been a hard week. While I am a New Yorker, I have lived more than four years of my life in the city of Jerusalem. I spent a good amount of time in the 90’s working as a part of the Israeli/Palestinian peace efforts. What is happening in Jerusalem is personal – two of the victims of this round of violence are in my network of friends and family. My family and friends, Jewish and Arab, are frightened and upset. Most are expressing themselves in heartfelt and also nuanced ways. Yet my Facebook feed, sadly, has also been polluted with dehumanizing, vitriolic posts. A really hard week.


But every morning, I walk through the front door of the 14th Street Y, pocket that little screened portal to a churning world, and enter a totally different reality. Damaris, our morning security guard, welcomes a child by name with a smile. A pair of friends in their late 70s walk into the yoga class where they first met, chatting about their shared weekend plans. A mom stops to pull her baby carrier out from her chest to show me the face of her two-week old child, one of our newest members.


This has been a good week, because I get to come to the Y every day. We are a diverse center and community made up of people of every background and experience. And, in the middle of a huge and anonymous city, we have created a warm community predicated on and dedicated to the idea that we value the humanity of every person. 


Valuing the humanity in each person is a core Jewish sensibility.* For those who follow the tradition of reading the Torah every year, we just started it again from the beginning last week. The origin story of the Jewish people teaches that every human being was created in the image of the same Divine being, in Hebrew, “B’tzelem Elohim.” From this story, we derive the sensibility that each person is unique and individual, and yet each of us is coming from and connected to the same source. This tradition holds us responsible for finding the divine spark in every other person. If we see that every person is fully unique, but also inherently exactly like us at their core, what follows is a human responsibility for creating justice and preserving dignity—not only for our individual selves, but for every person.


This is one of the many Jewish sensibilities that sit at the heart of the 14th Street Y. Our community is diverse. Among our many thousands of members, we hold many faiths (or none); we practice many religions (or none); we identify with many different ethnic groups; we speak many languages; every gender and sexual identity is represented amongst our members. Jewish sensibilities like B’tzelem Elohim (“value the humanity in each person”) guide us as individuals, as a community and as a center to reach our highest and deepest aspirations. So this hard week was also a good week – because while I am saddened as dehumanizing words and deeds pollute one part of my world, I am lucky to spend my days in this community, one that encourages us and helps us to value and support and appreciate each other. 


Over the coming weeks, on Fridays, I will be blogging about a different Jewish sensibility, and where and how it touches the Y community. I hope that if you read them, you will respond – either with a comment or by sending me an email at sepstein@14streety.org. These sensibilities only serve us inasmuch as we grapple with them, respond to them, stretch them, and reshape them so that they best reflect us and our community. So, please, with dignity and respect for the humanity of every other commenter – add a comment to this blog, and add your voice to our community conversation!


Shabbat Shalom.


*The Lippman Kanfer Institute has published a set of Jewish Sensibilities here, based on an earlier article by Dr. Vanessa Ochs. Take a look!

Arts & Culture Season Announcement

2015-2015 Season Launch of Arts & Culture events at the 14th Street Y

This season, the 14th Street Y is proud to present a wide variety of arts and cultural events for audiences of all ages. From dance, to wine tasting, to film, to musicals, to visual art and Shabbat experiences for the whole family, there is something for everyone this year at the 14th Street Y!

Dance Series

Our Dance Series brings diverse styles of dance including Flamenco, Ballet, Modern, Immersive, Tap and Contemporary to the downtown community.  Tickets are available at 14streety.org/dance.

Sonia Olla Flamenco Dance Company Sept. 9-13 — Zullo/Raw Movement Oct. 28-Nov. 1

Bare Dance Company Dec. 4-6 — of bones || hollye bynum Dec. 17-19

Joffrey Ballet School Feb. 17-21 — Sokolow Dance/Theatre Ensemble Mar. 10

From the Horse’s Mouth Apr. 1-3 —  American Tap Dance Foundation Apr. 13-17


This fall the 14th Street Y Theater will welcome two innovative productions from our resident companies, Red Fern Theater and Afterwork Theater.

Red Fern Theatre Company (readings) Sept. 14-20 — Macbeth (of the Oppressed) Oct. 8-24

Afterwork Theater Presents Urinetown Nov. 13-22

Other Israel Film Festival Nov. 5-8

The 14th Street Y is participating in the 9th annual Other Israel Film Festival. Award-winning films and engaging conversations focusing on the lives and diverse stories of Arab citizens of Israel and minority populations. Visit www.otherisrael.org for updates.

Pause/Play Nov. 14, Dec. 12, Jan. 9, Feb. 6, Mar. 12

Pause/Play is an innovative Saturday afternoon of Shabbat programming, once monthly at the 14th Street Y.  Activities will include New Country in the City camp programming for kids; toddler sing-a-longs; adult conversations and learning; LABA/rts sessions; meditation; music; family and adult fitness and aquatics for all ages. Free for Y members.

LABALive DRUNK Jan. 21

You’ve seen wine paired with food, but how about wine paired with texts? Join LABA fellows, ancient text scholars and a sommelier as they explore the relationship between wine and time through teachings, tastings and performances. A sensual mash-up indeed. Ticketed event.

LABALive Feb. 25, Mar. 17, Apr. 7, Jun. 2

Join us for a presentation of new works in progress by the LABA Fellows and teachings surrounding this year’s theme of Beauty. LABALive events will include dance, theater, visual art, literature and immersive performances. Ticketed event.

Tikkun Jun. 11

Into the Night a contemporary spin on Tikkun Leil Shavuout presented by Downtown Jews at the 14th Street Y. Join us for a nocturnal journey through culture, conversation, ritual and cheesecakes featuring LABA Fellows, artists, teachers, musicians, and rabbis. Free.

“All Instruments Are Welcome” Jewish Music with Uri Sharlin

Uri Sharlin
Instructor Uri Sharlin

We sat down with Uri Sharlin, the instructor of the Intro Jewish Music for Non-Professional Musicians class, beginning on Wednesday, September 30th. Uri is a Brooklyn-based composer, accordionist player, and arranger. He has worked with prominent musicians Antony and the Johnsons, Natalie Merchant, Avi Avital and Frank London. Uri was also featured as a pianist and composer in the acclaimed HBO series Flight of the Conchords. He is currently leading several groups including the Cardamon Quartet and the DogCat Ensemble and is the creator of Play Me a Story, a musical storytelling performance program for children.

What excites you most about teaching Intro to Jewish Music?

Uri: It is always exciting for me to teach music, and to teach a hands-on class is what I enjoy the most. I am looking forward to have a group of people who have never played together before, and some of whom haven’t touched their instrument for a while, and help them sound good! I will teach various styles and genres within Jewish music and focus on building practical performance skills the students can continue developing and using beyond the class. This program is geared toward performance, and we will have a few of my colleagues join us and enrich our perspective on performance throughout the semester.

Tell us about your experience with Jewish music. 

Uri: I have been involved in the Jewish music world in New York for many years. This summer only I was in Mexico playing Moroccan Jewish music with the master Emil Zerihan, and the following week, teaching up at KlezKanada. I went from a van in the Mexican desert where everybody but me spoke Moroccan to a camp where pretty much everybody is interested in Yiddish…

How did this idea come about?

Uri: For the past few years I have been running the Tikun Leil Shavuot jam session at the 14th Street Y. It is one of my favorite nights here in the city, where musicians meet and create a new piece of music together, in the middle of the night, with the support of amazing crowds of all backgrounds. More than once I had people approach me and say something like – ‘I used to play the accordion, but never like that…how do you guys do it?’ Well, this class is all about that. Ronit (Ronit Muszkatblit, Artistic Director of LABA) was always very supportive of my music and so the class was a natural collaboration for us.

What do you hope to accomplish with the class?

The main goal is to get students of all levels who are playing an instrument, even if not professionally, to gain deeper insight into Jewish music and ensemble playing. We will explore a different genre every week or two. The level of the class, the chosen repertoire, and the demands from the students will be based on the level of the student and their participation. We will do everything possible to accommodate students of all levels and instruments.

Register online today!

Wednesdays, September 30th – December 9th from 7:00 – 8:30pm at the 14th Street Y
For more information, email URI at usharlin@gmail.com


KALEIDOSCOPE – “What Does Jewish Look Like?”

We sat down with Israel Bitton, an actor in the upcoming show KALEIDOSCOPE taking place July 15-19 2015 in The Theater here at the 14th Street Y. Kaleidoscope asks and answers the question, What does Jewish look like? Effectively exploring and validating diversity with the Jewish community.
Actor Brian Britton
Actor Israel Bitton

How did you get involved in KALEIDOSCOPE? 

Several years back I stumbled upon HBO’s Def Jam Poetry when Vanessa Hidary appeared and so passionately delivered a great performance of her piece “The Hebrew Mamita.” It struck a chord. I was proud that she was ‘representin’ us, and at the same time it occurred to me that one day I’d love to do the same. Then I saw her post this project, and it was just an obvious and immediate entry point for me.
What has the creative process been like?
Challenging. Rewarding. Vanessa and Kendell, through the workshop portion of this project, have helped each cast member reach into our personal histories so that we can craft monologues that are both deeply personal and still entertaining for audiences.
How do you view and identify yourself?
The world would peg me as a Modern-Orthodox Sephardic American Jew, but I don’t believe nationality, culture or observance level to be an essential part of my identity. It’s only a flavoring, and therefore I simply identify myself as a Jew.
What would you say defines you as a Jewish identifying person?
My kippah. My name (Yisrael Barouch). My soul.
Can you tell us about what you will be performing at KALEIDOSCOPE?
I explore my journey from being one of the few Sephardic kids in an all-Ashkenazi school system, the trials and tribulations that come along with that experience, my attempt to invent a new identity for myself, to coming to terms with my name, and ultimately, accepting my full identity as a means for true personal growth.
What have you been most surprised about and/or learned the most about during this process?
Aside from the very practical enhancement to writing and performance skills, I’m most surprised by just how diverse our cast really is. As someone who has a unique backstory and perspective, I generally have a broad worldview that allows me to see people beyond the stereotypes. And still, I thought that there would be so many similarities between the cast members that some stories would be redundant. Not so. If you’ll see the first black Jewish cast member perform, and when the second comes up you’ll think you now know what to expect, well, you’ll be surprised at just how unique every individual is. The end lesson, even for me as a cast member, is that despite being told we’re too different, or not good enough, we’re all essentially one and the same. And though we share a common thread that essentially connects us, that connection doesn’t have to compromise our right to self-discovery and the assuming of our unique identities, backgrounds, stories and trajectories.
 In the end, people that watch these performances will certainly be challenged to broaden their conception of what constitutes the Jewish identity.

XpuKM2HM63vBbEctGntYKC1DL-k8M3xc4pKds5QGB5MThe 14th Street Y and The Hebrew Mamita Present:


Developed and Directed by Vanessa Hidary
July 15-19, 2015

Get tickets HERE.

Vivid Reflections. Boldly Diverse. Distinctly Jewish.

The World Premiere of Kaleidoscope, a multi-media project and monologue showcase sparked by a desire to highlight Jews of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and observance levels, will be presented at The Theater at the 14th Street Y, 344 E. 14th Street, on July 15th and 16th at 8pm, and on July 19 at 3pm.

Through extensively crafted, deeply personal stories, Kaleidoscope will delve into the ever-popular question “What does Jewish look like to you?” The diverse and talented cast includes performers of a wide range of ethnicities, including Moroccan, British, Jamaican, Ethiopian, Libyan, and Puerto Rican.

Counting The Days, Making Them Count.

Today we are welcoming our newest staff member, Brian Garrick, Assistant Program Director of Jewish Life and Learning. Brian’s first project is to engage all of us in the counting of the Omer, marking our personal and collective time between the holidays of Passover (in early April) and Shavuot (in late May).

The question has often been posed in religious and secular circles; how can we use our precious days in this lifetime? How can we make our days count?  Because it is a tradition to count the Omer,  Brian will be engaging all of us to count our days (through our 14th Street Y twitter account @14thstreetY) and talk about how we make our days count.  Please read below a message from Brian, and follow us @14thstreetY to retweet, comment, share, and count with us.

-Camille Diamond; Director of Community Engagement and Communications

In our busy, over-programmed world, too infrequently we create opportunities for self-reflection. The Jewish tradition offers us an incredible opportunity to look at ourselves and to ask questions of ourselves through Counting the Omer (Sefirat HaOmer). Omer means measures in Hebrew. When the Temple stood, it was customary to bring a measure of barley harvest as an offering three times a year, at Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot. The tradition of Counting the Omer dates to those ancient times. We measured the seven weeks between planting new barley and harvesting it; then offered a measure, in thanks, to God. The meaning of the counting and our awareness of time and its passage during those days has changed over time. Nowadays, most of us are not barley farmers, and the Temple no longer stands, so we must imbue practices like counting the Omer with new meaning.

Each Spring we count the days between Passover and Shavuot, 7 weeks of 7 days, 49 days total, leading up to the 50th day on Shavuot. During Passover, we celebrate the Exodus, the liberation of the ancient Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Shavuot is the anniversary of the day when the ancient Israelites accepted the teachings of Torah at Mount Sinai. If Passover signifies freedom, then Shavuot signifies responsibility, the responsibility of living a good, just and ethical life according to Torah. The movement from redemption of Exodus to revelation at Sinai, echoes our ancestors’ journey out of Egypt and through the desert to Sinai.

As we move toward responsibility, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves why we count. We can take a serious look at what that responsibility entails, as Jews, and/or as citizens in our communities. So our counting becomes meaningful and an opportunity to reflect on our relationship to self, to others and to our communities. It provides an occasion to ask “Why I count?” Not simply asking, “Why I count the omer?” but the larger question of “Why I count in the world?” What is my relationship to it? How do I situate myself in relation to others? What is important to me? What is important that I tell or share with others? How does my organization or my community fit into the larger framework of the Jewish community, of downtown, etc? Perhaps, one can see this reflective practice as an extension of the questioning that began at the seder. What difference can I make in the world? What is my place here? What impact can I make? The omer is a call to be more than we have been before.


Here at The 14th Street Y, we are providing a platform for to engage in a social media campaign around The Counting of the Omer: #YiCount. Each day of the Omer, we will invite you to share with your community why you count.  

Please follow @14thstreetY to discover the question of the day and to learn why others are counting as well.


We look forward to the conversation.

Brian Garrick

brian garrick

Brian is a recent transplant to New York City from San Francisco. He has worked as Program Manager for Arts & Ideas at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. He currently produces the weekly literary series at The Half King in Chelsea, New York City. He holds an MA in Jewish Studies from Emory University and has spent time learning at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.  His talents and interests include the history and science of gastronomy, collecting vinyl records, Jewish philosophy, and rooting for the Los Angeles Lakers.