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Community Shapes the Arts and Beyond
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VO I C E S Volume CVIV – Number 11
FOUNDING PUBLISHERS Edgar Goldberg 1908-1937 David H. White and Ida S. White 1938-1973 Joseph W. Samuels 1973-2011 PRESIDENT & CEO Vicki Samuels Levy EDITOR and PUBLISHER Jeanne F. Samuels Associate editor | Michael C. Duke Multimedia manager | Matt Samuels Editorial research | Arnold Rosenzweig Staff writer | Aaron Howard Editorial team | Lawrence S Levy Food editor | Theodore Powers Sports editor | Matt Samuels COLUMNISTS Alice Adams • Halle Brazda Felice and Michael Friedson • Pam Geyer Ed Reitman, Ph.D. • Teddy Weinberger PRODUCTION Production director | Aaron D. Poscovsky Magazine designer | Matt Samuels Graphic designer | Mary Jane Johnston Proofreader | Judy Bluestein-Levin
elcome back to VOICES in Houston, the Jewish HeraldVoice’s annual, award-winning lifestyle magazine. This 2016 edition focuses on the impact that Jews across Greater Houston are having on the arts, on philanthropy, and on judicial power in the state of Texas. The cover story profiles Anat Ronen, one of the top street artists and muralists working in Houston today. The self-taught painter and Israelinative has used art as a means to exercise self-determination, while beautifying the city’s urban landscape. Michael C. Duke Other arts-related features highlight local Jewish art collectors, with particular attention paid to their collection philosophies and philanthropic support of local museums and institutions. Continuing along the arts theme is a profile on NobleMotion Dance Company, the only Jewish-owned-and-directed dance company in Houston and a rising star on the national performing arts scene. Among the legacies left behind by Rabbi Joseph Radinsky, who died this past year, is his good-works fund, providing emergency financial assistance to community members in need and enabling children to receive a Jewish education. The man responsible for managing the fund, today, shares his own remarkable story and special friendship with Rabbi Radinsky, of blessed memory. The Jewish values of justice and hope play a substantial role in guiding Judge Mike Engelhart’s decisions from the bench. Recently named “Trial Judge of the Year,” Engelhart explains how the court system works in Texas and expounds upon his duties as an elected official and district court judge. Rounding out this year’s edition of VOICES is a portrait series, focused on local Jewish redheads, and a personal reflection on the similarities between email and prayer. The Jewish Herald-Voice is grateful to its loyal subscribers and advertisers, who enable the Texas Gulf Coast’s Jewish newspaper of record, since 1908, to spotlight the contributions that local Jews make toward shaping Greater Houston into the wonderful community that it is. c
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ADVERTISING SALES Advertising Manager | Phillip Eaton Ad account executives: Trey Bullock • Orit Gonik Levi • Lew Sampson Melanie Sherman • Steve Sherman
Community Shapes the Arts and Beyond Introduction BY MICHAEL C. DUKE
Houston’s NobleMotion Dance Copmany Making Art that Impacts the Soul BY ALICE ADAMS
Classified/Singles | Joseph Macias Director of first impressions | Sharon Stoper Livitz Accounts receivable | Huong Tonnu Bookkeeper | Mary Ainsworth Payroll | Maurene Bencal Mailing address: P.O. Box 153 • Houston, TX 77001-0153 News: firstname.lastname@example.org Letters: email@example.com Subscriptions: firstname.lastname@example.org Advertising: email@example.com Telephone: 713-630-0391 • Fax: 713-630-0404 Digital: jhvonline.com/e-edition Web: jhvonline.com Twitter: @jhvonline Facebook.com/JewishHeraldVoice Located at 3403 Audley St.• Houston, TX 77098-1923
11 Anat Ronen: Self-Made Street Artist BY MICHAEL C. DUKE 16 Jewish Gingers BY MICHAEL C. DUKE
19 Texas Judge Speaks on How to Evaluate Judicial Hopefuls BY AARON HOWARD 23 Through the Eyes of the Collector: Jewish Art Collectors in Houston BY RACHEL MOHL DUKE 27 The Amazing Journey of Jose Luis Rodriguez BY ALICE ADAMS 31 My Summer Monologue: A Thought on Prayer BY YAEL TRUSCH
Published weekly – Plus Wedding, Passover, Voices in Houston, Rosh Hashanah and Bar/Bat Mitzvah editions – by Herald Publishing Co., 3403 Audley St., Houston, TX 77098. ©2016, with all rights reserved. Reproduction or use without permission of editorial or graphic content in any manner is prohibited. Periodicals Postage Paid at Houston, Texas. Subscription rates: USA $180 for 3 years; $125 for 2 years; $65 per year; 9 months for $55. Foreign subscriptions upcharged with international first-class postage. Single newspaper copies by mail: PREPAID $4. Back Issues: PREPAID $6. Single VOICES magazine copies by mail: PREPAID $8 each. Postmaster: Send address changes to: Jewish Herald-Voice, PO Box 153, Houston TX 77001-0153.
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Houston’s NobleMotion Dance Company: Making Art That Impacts the Soul
By ALICE ADAMS | JHV
ndy Noble describes himself as “goofy” and “fun-loving.” These traits do sometimes tiptoe into the collaborative choreography from Andy and his wife, Dionne Sparkman Noble, performed by their students in the Sam Houston State University’s Department of Dance and the couple’s downtown Houston NobleMotion Dance Group. But, their gritty, multidimensional works also reflect the couple’s passion for the dance and relevant storytelling that reaches beyond the footlights and into the collective soul of their audiences, whether at Sam Houston’s new Gaertner Performing Arts Center, Hobby Center in Houston or various performance spaces in New York or around the globe. The son of playwright parents and poet grandparents, Andy’s penchant for telling stories through his dance assuredly comes naturally. But, he also credits his wife for their no-holds-barred collaborations and their shared passion for creating dance with a message, with relevance – dance that leaves the audience to think about what they’ve just seen. Raised by a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, Andy told the JHV, he, as an adult, is connected with the cultural components of Judaism, but does not see himself as “the most educated Jew. My grandparents were German Jewish Holocaust refugees,” he said. More than anything else, Andy and Dionne Noble make dances that bring out the spirit, strengths and athleticism of their dancers. Critics have applauded and exclaimed over this unexpected, but ever-present aspect of NobleMotion performances.
“Coming to America” by NobleMotion Dance Company
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Dancing student Growing up in Tallahassee and Tampa, Andy began with hip-hop as a kid. “I didn’t take my first class until I was 19, but break dancing and hip-hop was beginning when I was in grade school, and I had this amazing music teacher who opened her classroom to us after school.” This communal learning experience allowed students to practice moves, share new moves, support each other, and compete for the titles of greatest repertoire, the best skills. “My parents were getting divorced about this same time, so these afternoons provided a needed outlet – physical and athletic – as well as an emotional distraction,” said Andy, who earlier this year, presented a program in Houston in which he and Dionne collaborated with his mother in telling his survivorgrandmother’s story about the Holocaust. He attributes NobleMotion Dance’s success not only to collaborations but also to his experience with the written word, his being taken to the theater throughout childhood and his and Dionne’s determination to remain on the leading edge of dance performance. After high school, Andy attended The
Dionne Sparkman Noble and Andy Noble
University of South Florida to study philosophy and theater. “But, we also had a dance crew, so I took an improv class and did fairly well. Being male – and lack of male dancers always opened doors for guys – they encouraged me to continue taking classes,” he remembered.
In his next class, there was one girl – a classically trained ballerina – who didn’t think much of Andy’s hip-hop skills. “We didn’t like each other, until we were assigned a duet project. That was the beginning of a friendship that evolved. We started falling for each other, which made the whole pro-
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is more than a lifestyle...
cess a lot of fun. You could say, at age 19, I discovered love and passion. Love for Dionne Sparkman, who became my wife, and a shared passion for dance.” After graduation, the two toured. Andy’s performing career includes six years with Repertory Dance Theatre, where he performed in more than 40 choreographic works by such noted masters as Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Jose Limon. He also has worked with a number of contemporary and international artists, such as Gideon Obarzanek (Chunky Move), Jo Strømgren and Zvi Gotheiner.
Injury begets career change As fate would have it, which included a performance-ending injury, Andy quickly replaced his first love for dance with an equal love for teaching and choreography. He had a stint as adjunct professor of dance at Western Washington University. Then, the couple returned to Florida State, where they each earned their MFAs in dance, which led to jobs for the duo at Sam Houston State University and the lure of nearby Houston’s healthy and growing dance community. “I am happy to report we have built, with our fellow faculty, one of the strongest university dance programs in the region,” the dancer said. “We audition about 300 students for 45 places in our dance program at Sam Houston, offer an outstanding and diverse faculty and have a beautiful performing arts center that ranks among the top 25 university performance spaces in the country. “Many of our students go on to professional careers, and every other year, Sam Houston’s dance program is invited to perform at the National Dance Festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “Our students graduate with a good theatrical sensibility and a well-rounded learning experience at one of the best programs in the south-central region,” he added.
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The two dancer/choreographer/teachers are kept uber-busy, balancing their teaching duties with choreography, directing their downtown Houston-based company and rearing their two children. “Our company is made up of 10 professionals. Some have come from Sam Houston’s program and do well in our work,” Andy said. “Most are in their late 20s, but ages in the company range from 21 to 40.” The two, who currently are working on a 20-minute dance, called “Skin,” for the Bruce Wood Dance Project, a Dallas-based dance company, often use technology and lighting as elements of their dance. “We love collaborating with the spoken word, music, musicians and other elements,” the choreographer explained. “An upcoming performance at Hobby Center is all about smashing what we do into another media – in this case, lighting. Our audience members will be given glasses for the evening and will be engaged on many different levels. “Some critics have written about our company’s athleticism, others have noted our rawness as we portray the human condition,” Andy continued. “We think our dances say a lot about real people and the human condition. I like to create characters and new worlds, and I intend for our audiences go into new worlds where we’ve created something new for them to experience.” NobleMotion Dance emphasizes the human body as the amazing machine it is, and contemporary dance is a genre that constantly explores the body’s movement for innovation and originality. “Most people are confounded by my wife and I collaborating, but I assure you, ours is a 50/50 proposition. Much of the failing that
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exists in the dance world happens because it takes many years to become a good choreographer. It takes time. In theater, there’s a dramaturg, someone who pushes the drama/ action. Dionne and I push and challenge each other, so we are consistent. But, I also believe, you must have a healthy marriage if you want a healthy collaboration.” Then, he chuckled. “Coming from parents who divorced, I need a shared cause, and, believe me, there is nothing more difficult than running a nonprofit. It is, and has always been, the two of us against the world!” He said with two kids, two jobs and numerous performances every year, the two sometimes feel starved for regenerative time. “But then, I love coming together and I like making things happen, building something from nothing, and I especially love sharing with my wife,” he added.
Hard work and passion Andy and Dionne see the two most important things they teach their students as 1) hard work and 2) passion – the very components that have solidified their own careers. The Nobles also are hard at work on their next performance, “Super Nova,” at Hobby Center, Aug. 26-27. “We’re working with an interesting set and spectacular lighting design to produce a new way of seeing dance, especially for people who haven’t seen dance before. Tickets will be on sale in early June, and our performances sold out last year, so we hope those wanting to experience this performance won’t wait too long for their tickets,” Andy said, “but we’re planning a wonderful evening of unique entertainment.” He marvels at the tremendous growth of their audiences as NobleMotion Dance enters its eighth season. “In those eight years, we’ve sold out performance nights at Hobby Center,
“Storm Front,” by NobleMotion Dance Company
we’ve been able to capture a broad audience, we work with amazing artists, have been successful at branding and produce work that is artistically accessible to non-dancers, like dance dads, as well as dance aficionados.” What is Noble best at? “A good chunk of it, I’ve worked really hard at it. There are probably more people who are much more talented, but I listen to the work. I think some choreographers fall short, because they don’t stop and listen to the dance, but I take the time to let the dance tell me what to do. “I also have a pretty thick skin and don’t let my insecurities/ego get in my way. I like feedback; it’s useful information, and I’m not afraid to use someone else’s idea because I accept I don’t have all the answers.” He said his Jewishness is always part of the company’s choreography, “It’s something in family’s bones – a sense of loss, that
s wO o oOd a BN oRr tAh EB rSa eW Dt
heritage, that paranoia, from the Holocaust – and one of the things I love about the Jewish culture is the humor that adds levity, more from a cultural and spiritual heritage. After seeing one of NobleMotion Dance’s performances, film screenwriter John Ridley (who wrote “12 Years A Slave” and television’s “American Crime”) asked the couple to choreograph a four-and-a-half-minute dance, and then NMD performed it, with the use of an NFL wire cam. [This breathtaking dance, in case you missed it, can be viewed on YouTube at youtube.com/ watch?v=iGWmILwXhEw.] NobleMotion Dance recently was listed in Dance Magazine as one of Houston’s “A-list” dance companies. Andy’s work also has been selected for the National Dance Festival at The Kennedy Center in Washington. For more information about NobleMotion Dance, go to noblemotiondance.com. c
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Self-Made Street Artist By MICHAEL C. DUKE | JHV
nat Ronen is painting the town red – and blue, and yellow, and every color in between. The Israeli-born artist has achieved what many can only dream. That is, to make a living creating art. Over the past several years, her work has brought life to the sides of buildings, street corners, highways, homes, schools and hospitals across Greater Houston. As a large-scale muralist, she specializes in portraiture, capturing the genius, or essence, of her subject matter. “My greatest love is street art, because it offers the biggest gallery on earth,” Ronen told the JHV in May 2016. “It has no limitations, no requirements. “Everything can be a canvas, and anything can carry a message,” she said. For Ronen, art has been a gateway to self-determination. At the same time, it’s provided her with a means of giving back to the community that she now calls home. “I’m doing what I love, and I love what I’m doing,” she said. “I’m reaching new places in both my life and in my art that I never, ever thought I’d get to.” She added, “Houston is a huge city with a lot of opportunity. If you’re good enough, and you’re quick enough, and you’re willing to pick up the phone and get out there, there’s great potential, here, to make a name for yourself.” It’s taken Ronen a combination of chutzpah and hard work to achieve her reputation as one of Houston’s preeminent street artists. Whereas many of her colleagues went to art school, she is entirely self-taught. The 45-year-old is driven toward success, in part, because she had a late start in her vocation, but even more so because the life that she and her family have in Houston has largely hinged upon her ability to make it as a working artist. “We’ve been here on a O-1 visa, which is given to people with special talents, like actors, athletes, musicians and artists,” Ronen said. “We got that visa at the end of 2008, and that meant from that point on,
JHV: MICHAEL C. DUKE
Anat Ronen has spent the past year transforming streetlight and electrical boxes across Greater Houston into original works of art. One of the largest, painted in May, is located at the Bellaire Transit Center at 5100 Bellaire Blvd.
I needed to start making a living from art. “It was a great thing to have that visa,
but it didn’t mean I’d automatically get paid,” she said. “I’ve had to work for it.”
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Coming to America Ronen and her husband, Ori, both grew up in northern Israel. Ori, especially, felt constrained by the kibbutz life he was born into. Ronen’s family, on the other hand, moved around when she was young and, therefore, she never had time to develop a connection to any particular place, she noted. After a short visit to the U.S., the couple fell in love with the size of America. A year later, Ronen, Ori and Ronen’s son, Orr, packed what they could and decided to start a new life in the States. “We came here without any plans,” recalled Ronen, who now has been in the U.S. for 10 years. “We said the only rule is to come here kosher, meaning legally.” Ronen initially arrived in the U.S. on a business visa. Prior to the move, she was working for a real estate investor in Israel, who allowed her to transfer to the company’s Miami branch to help run the back office. After a few months, Ori, whose talents lay in agriculture and construction, was offered a job building greenhouses in Michigan, so the family decided to relocate there. Unfortunately, they were cheated in the arrangement, leaving them to question: “What do we do now? Do we go back to Israel?” Ronen and Ori agreed to try one more city in the U.S. before giving up. They chose Houston because of its size, warm climate and affordability. Once again, they packed up and moved. That was Pesach 2007, and they’ve been here ever since. “Up till then, we were still doing mostly what we did before, work-wise, so it wasn’t a radical change, other than having a new address,” Ronen said. “But, we didn’t like being here on a business visa. “It’s like being a prostitute,” she explained. “The sponsor basically becomes your pimp and has the power to determine if you stay or go home. That drove me crazy, so I started looking for another solution.” Ronen learned about the O-1 visa for artists. She applied, despite having no formal training or work experience as an artist. To her great surprise, she was approved.
Muralist emerges The visa required Ronen to make her living through art. She began to advertise on Craig’s List, offering a variety of skills, including illustration, graphic design, Web design and mural painting. “I picked up a few projects here and there, and quickly realized that illustration, graphic design and Web design can be done from anywhere, so the market is supersaturated,” she said. “Murals, on the other hand, are done
JHV: MICHAEL C. DUKE
Portraiture is Anat Ronen’s speciality. Her skill was shown during the Madness on Main Street Music Festival through a portrait mural she created of a local band, “The Suffers.”
on-site. Once I figured that out, I began to narrow my focus.” Ronen’s first mural project came in late 2008. A Jewish family in Houston’s neighbor, Missouri City, wanted a tropical landscape painted alongside its backyard pool. “They told me they waited seven years to get the mural of their dreams – so, no pressure,” the fledgling artist recalled. “It took me three days to complete it. Thankfully, they loved it, and that was the first sign to continue in JHV: MICHAEL C. DUKE that direction.” In recent years, Anat Ronen has strived to create iconic images, imbued with politiA few weeks later, Ronen cal messages and deeper meaning. Her portrait of Malala Yousafzai, portrayed in received a response from her the style of Rosie the Riveter, went viral on social media. Craig’s List ad from a company that paints crete barrier, hemming the stretch of highway streets and highways across the state of Texas. that connects Galveston Island to the mainBesides the roadways, themselves, some of the land. “I learned from that experience how quick jobs included smaller art projects. Ronen was intrigued and successfully interviewed for the I can work and that I have a feel for large-scale projects,” Ronen said. job. Confidence in her overall ability, however, Her first project was along the Galveston would come later. Causeway in 2009. “Being a new artist at the time, I had to talk “I had absolutely zero knowledge of how to tackle a project that size,” Ronen recalled. myself into it,” Ronen admitted. “If they didn’t “They said just go to the store and pick the like it, my mentality was: Worst-case scenario, paint. … I ended up buying 100-times more they won’t pay me, and they can paint over it.” Fortunate for Ronen, the project was a sucthan I needed. “The funny thing is they never said a cess. Soon after, she was hired to paint a series word,” she added. “I’m still using the overstock, of Texas stars along I-10, between Beltway 8 and Loop 610. She also painted a space-themed now, six years later.” The artist designed a wetlands scene, com- mural on the NASA Road 1 column under I-45 plete with white egrets. Dressed in a hardhat South. As much as the roadway projects helped and high-visibility vest, Ronen went to work, painting four sections of the 90-foot-long con- Ronen build her skills and reputation as a
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painter, the pay was low and the work was dangerous. “When doing the stars [on I-10], we had to drive the scissor lift from one intersection to another in the middle of traffic,” Ronen said. “Then, there’s the fact that you’re breathing in the traffic fumes all day, plus the sun and heat radiating off the concrete. “It was brutal,” she admitted.
Restoring pride Shortly after Ronen parted ways with the road-painting company, she was contacted by the Houston Independent School District, which was looking to hire artists to paint murals at HISD schools. In 2012, she completed a mural at Dodson Elementary. Two years later, HISD’s board of trustees voted to close down the low-performing school. The move was controversial and drew harsh criticism, especially from families who were transferred to Dodson in the wake of prior school closures. Many former Dodson students were sent to Blackshear Elementary in Houston’s historic Third Ward. Dodson’s principal also moved to Blackshear and reached out to Ronen following the move, asking her to paint a new mural at Blackshear that would help bring a sense of pride to families at the school and to the disad-
vantaged neighborhood. “The school has a huge wall outside, making it look like a prison,” Ronen observed. “Inside, it’s a beautiful school, but outside, there are no windows, just a solid brick, ugly thing.” The project had a limited budget, so Ronen proposed a simple floral design. The principal wanted something more personal – a design that would give back to the community that had been deeply hurt by the Dodson closure. Ronen came back with the idea to paint a few portraits of local community leaders. She attended a meeting with the intent to make reference photographs for the mural. Unable to find enough volunteers to be featured, she opted to open up the project to anyone at the school or from the neighborhood. Initially, it was just Ronen on the street, asking people if they wanted to be part of the project. Word began to spread, however, and by the second day, people started lining up to be included. Eventually, Ronen was forced to turn people away because there were so many. After expanding her design multiple times, she managed to include 55 different portraits along the 250-foot-long by 18-foot-tall wall. The job took 45 working days to complete, spread across eight months, due to weather. It was finished in 2015.
‘Selfie’ mural Ronen refers to the Blackshear project as the “selfie” mural. With self-reflexive elements, it contains a self-portrait of the artist, along with a woman from the neighborhood, taking a photo of Ronen painting the mural. While most of the portraits reflect the predominantly black community, one section of the mural features a Palestinian family. “They were at the original event I went to when I was planning out the mural,” the Israeli artist recalled. “I was excited to meet them and felt really strongly about including them in the project.” Of the dozens of public and street-art projects that Ronen has painted across Greater Houston, the Blackshear mural is her favorite, she noted. “What made it so special were all the people who came by to say how it makes them proud, and how it adds to the community, knowing that this community is struggling,” Ronen said. “It was really important to me to give them something that they can take pride in and enjoy every day, despite their challenges.” In personal terms, the project also solidified the artist’s confidence in her abilities. “Three years ago, if you told me this is what I’d be doing, I would have laughed hard in your face,” Ronen said. “Portraits – they’re the hard-
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est subject to paint, because even the slightest inaccuracy screws the whole thing up. If the person doesn’t look like the painting, it’s not a portrait. “Here, I was challenged to do 55 portraits, with the actual people walking by every day, looking over my shoulder as I worked,” she said. “The experience taught me a lot.”
Precision portraits Ronen has enjoyed a sharp learning curve in developing both her artistic skills and her artistic voice. She began testing her hand at portraiture only a few years before executing the Blackshear mural. At the time, she belonged to a Facebook group, called Sticky Note Art, that challenged participants to create works of art within the parameters of a 3-inch-by3-inch-square canvas. “I started practicing doing portraits that size, because anything bigger was too scary and intimidating,” Ronen said. “Little by little, I became comfortable with the challenge and gained the confidence to go larger.” Ronen currently works out of a studio space that doubles as a gallery on Telephone Road near South Lockwood Drive. An early collection of her sticky note portraits is framed on the back wall. Nearby, a sketchbook rests on a coffee table, containing portrait drawings of the cast of “Downton Abbey” – a project commissioned in 2015 by the local PBS station for a watchparty of the series finale. In the front of the gallery hangs a series of door panels – some of the first large-scale portraits that Ronen attempted. The one of her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, is exceptional. The opposite wall displays Ronen’s portrait of Malala Yousafzai – the female education activist who was shot in the face by the Pakistani Taliban and later became the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate. Ronen presents Yousafzai in a similar pose to Rosie the Riveter, flexing her bicep. The portrait is similar to one that Ronen painted in 2014 – an image that went viral on social media. She created another version during a live-painting demonstration on the campus of University of Houston in 2015. A year before painting Malala, Ronen embarked on an evolutionary change in her work. She was invited to contribute to a group exhibition at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. The image she created for the show depicts an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian fighter, together, armed with water guns. An inscription painted in Arabic, Hebrew and English reads: “If Only.” “Beginning with ‘If Only,’ I started to paint
JHV: MICHAEL C. DUKE
Anat Ronen painted a mural on the outer wall of HISD’s Blackshear Elementary in 2015, featuring 55 portraits of students, family and residents from the surrounding Third Ward neighborhood. The 250-foot-long mural also includes a self-portrait of the artist.
things with more meaning,” Ronen reflected. “The best street art is memorable – images that stick with you and become iconic.” “If Only” also contains a backstory. The Station Museum is run by a hardcore pro-Palestinian activist, Ronen noted. The outside of the museum often is papered with slogans, like: “Free Palestine.” When Ronen went to interJHV: MICHAEL C. DUKE view at the museum for Anat Ronen frequently paints in the company of her husband, Ori, who serves as qualitythe exhibition, the activist control engineer. Besides his input and helping with project prep, Ori built out a studio started to yell, accusing her space and gallery for his wife. of being responsible for Israeli policy toward the after completing her army service in Israel, she Palestinians. decided to apply to an art school near her home “I responded by saying: ‘Listen, do you in Haifa. Her application was rejected. want to argue with me, or do you want my “I had a friend who knew somebody at the art?’ ” Ronen recalled. “Eventually, he said: school, so I leaned on them to find out why I ‘Ya, I want your art,’ and everything ended up was rejected,” Ronen said. “Besides submitting going really well.” a portfolio, you have an interview when you The Israeli artist added, “With that piece, apply. I ended up having two interviews, for in particular, I enjoyed the process of squeezing some reason. so many emotions into a single image. It was “During one of the interviews, I was asked meant to be political. the question: ‘What would you do if you’re not “My political views are that I want good for accepted?’ My answer was: ‘Well, I’ll try someeverybody,” she continued. “I want the truth. I where else.’ want fairness. I want everybody to be happy. I “Apparently, that was the wrong answer,” don’t want either side to suffer.” Ronen said. “They wanted me to say: ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to go here until the day I die.’ I realized, then and there, what art school is Art school reject Ronen has proven that college and art really about. After that, I lost interest in going school aren’t the only paths toward a success- to any art school – and I’m super happy I didn’t go. ful career. “Taking the route that I have, I’ve been In her youth, Ronen liked to design and illustrate, but never invested any serious time able to keep an open mind,” she said. “This has or training in either. Considering career paths allowed me to stay true to myself as an artist.”
14 | Jewish Herald-Voice | Voices in Houston | June 2016 | jhvonline.com
Power to change Ronen has an unquiet mind. She’s keeps equally busy with physical work. This past February, her Green Card application to become a permanent U.S. resident was approved. She said her ultimate goal is to earn U.S. citizenship and continue to pursue her art as an adoptive Houstonian. The week she interviewed with the JHV, Ronen painted three traffic-light boxes – a major, ongoing public art project for which she was recruited. In between, she worked on several mural designs and submitted a few proposals. She also conducted a workshop for patients at Texas Children’s Hospital, gave a couple of speeches and hosted a studio visit and street-art walking tour for a group of children. Despite being an introvert in her private life, Ronen said she enjoys talking art with people – the younger the better – and working in front of an audience. She also noted that she enjoys the company of her husband while she works, especially outdoors, for safety, and when a job requires scaffolding or other significant prep. Ori describes his role as “quality-control engineer.” When not called upon for help or input, he can be found sitting in a camp chair nearby, reading Hebrew-language books sent by his family from Israel. Outside of Houston, Ronen participates in street-art festivals and demonstrations around the globe. She also has made a point to pursue projects in Israel, which has allowed her to visit family there. Three years ago, she painted a mural at her nephew’s kindergarten. Then, she had the opportunity to paint murals at her grandfather’s nursing home. “My grandfather passed away a year-anda-half ago, and that was the last time I saw him,” Ronen said. “I was extremely happy to do that project for him and for all the caregivers and everybody else there.” Art has taken her to new places and to meet all sorts of people, Ronen noted. The best compliment she’s received, to date, came a few years ago while working on a mural project for a school library in League City, Texas. “A few days into painting, a teacher came by to tell me that she was against the project, thinking the money could have been used on something more important. But, after seeing what this project was, and realizing what an important role art can play, she changed her mind and said how good it is that I’m doing this for them,” Ronen said. “When you’re able to change someone’s perspective, that’s when art is most powerful,” she said. c
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16 | Jewish herald-Voice | Voices in houston | June 2016 | JhVonline.com
tOS By MICHAEL C. DUKE | JHV
s stand out, in part, because they possess the olor of hair. more than 2 percent of people around the re natural redheads, or “gingers,” as they’re where the trait, caused by a recessive gene, ore frequently. cles, Ashkenazim are more likely to be redSephardic cousins. s in Europe, red hair often was viewed as a attribute. During the Spanish Inquisition, berian Peninsula with red hair was assumed be a Jew. In English literature, authors from eare to Charles Dickens colored their Jewish ginger hair. mous redhead from biblical history was King wish gingers are found throughout Greater air color ranging from deep burgundy to
ries to touch my hair because it’s red,” said ey Newman, 5. , 12, said: “When someone sees me, they he stereotypical personality traits of a red-
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Texas Judge Speaks on How to Evaluate Judicial Hopefuls
By AARON HOWARD | JHV
of Justices of the Peace and in such other courts as may be provided by law.â€? The district courts are the trial courts of ho judges the judges? general jurisdiction of Texas. The geographical As it turns out, the Texas area served by each court is established by the Association of Civil Trial and legislature. Appellate Specialists does. District courts have original jurisdiction in TACTAS, for 2016, recognized Judge Mike all felony criminal cases, divorce cases, cases Engelhart as Trial Judge of the Year in a May involving title to land, election contest cases, 25 ceremony. TACTAS members are judges civil matters in which the amount in conand attorneys who are board certified in civil troversy (the amount of money or damages appellate law, civil trial law or personal injury involved) is $200 or more, and any matters in trial law. which jurisdiction is not placed exclusively in Engelhart also received the Public Sector another trial court. Achievement Award in March from the While most district courts try both crimiUniversity of Houston Law Center Alumni nal and civil cases, in the more densely popuAssociation. lated counties, the courts may specialize in Engelhart has been a judge in the Harris civil, criminal, juvenile or family law matters. County 151st District Court since his election The two basic types of courts which make to the office in 2008. He is board certified in up the Texas judicial system are the trial and personal injury trial law. He also is a member of the appellate (or appeals) courts. Congregation Brith Shalom and is on the board Trial courts are those in which witnesses of the Greater Houston Kosher Chili Cookoff, Inc. Judge Mike Engelhart are heard, exhibits are offered into evidence Judicial power in Texas is derived from and a verdict (in a jury trial) or a decision (in a case tried by a judge Article 5, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution, which states: â€œThe judicial power of this State shall be vested in one Supreme alone) is reached, based on the facts of the case and the law. In a civil Court, in one Court of Criminal Appeals, in Courts of Appeals, in case, the decision or verdict determines which party wins the lawsuit. A District Courts, in County Courts, in Commissioners Courts, in Courts criminal case determines whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty
Jewish herald-Voice | Voices in houston | June 2016 | JhVonline.com | 19
of the crime alleged. Judge Engelhart spoke with the JHV on how the courts work and the role of a district court judge. Most citizens are aware of the right to a trial by jury. That’s found in Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. In a Texas trial court, one may waive the right to a jury trial and elect to have the case tried by a judge (a bench trial). “In almost every case, that decision is made at the request of one side or the another, the plaintiff or the defendant,” said Judge Engelhart. “They file with the clerk’s office something called a ‘jury demand’ and they pay a fee. It’s usually done at the beginning of the legal process. “If you are a fan of the particular judge and think they are wise and might rule in your favor, then your lawyer might be inclined to advise his/her client to have a bench trial. If you believe the facts or subject matter of the case would tend to stir the emotions of a jury, you might ask for a jury trial. “Because there’s a constitutional right to a trial by jury, if one of the sides in a case requests a jury trial, then they are entitled to it. The only way back from there is if both sides subsequently agree to have a bench trial. The right to trial by jury is so strong that, even if
Judge Mike Engelhart
you haven’t paid a jury fee, most judges will reset the trial to allow you to do that, if you are seeking a jury trial.” Engelhart was a litigator for 13 years before he became a judge. Having been both in front of and on the bench, he notes his perspective about the law has changed since
becoming a judge. “Before I was a judge, I was an advocate for my clients, their version of the facts and the law that supported their claims. Remember, our system of justice is an adversarial system. It’s supposed to be, because that’s the best way to uncover the truth. “My role as a judge is to listen to both sides and objectively ascertain what the controlling law is in a case. And, then make a dispassionate decision about which side is right in a given issue. But, one is still a human being. So, I must actively distance myself from any sympathy or other emotions that might sway my position.” Is that possible? “It’s a constant effort, and something you get better at over time,” said Engelhart. “Some judges are better at that than others.” How does one evaluate a judge’s performance? If you are a lawyer, you probably are looking at whether, in a given dispute, you feel like a judge has listened to all arguments with an open mind; considered the arguments objectively; and then made a ruling that seems to be based on logic and understanding. “Lawyers are in a judge’s courtroom every day. A lawyer, in evaluating a judge, wants to know the judge does not have an agenda, and has not predetermined something,” said Engelhart.
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A more objective evaluation might include whether the judge is efficient and makes rulings promptly. Also, it is critical to know if a judge stays on top of his/her docket. Each of the 24 civil district judges in Harris County have a case load or docket of 1,400-2,000 pending cases. Only a small fraction ever are tried. Most get resolved or settled by some sort of voluntary or involuntary dismissal or settlement. Texas is one of 22 states where judges are elected – not appointed – to office. Judge Engelhart will be running for re-election in November. Proponents say electing judges makes them more democratically accountable, keeps judges more in tune with public opinion and makes the process more transparent than appointments. Those who favor appointing judges argue that elected judges may wrongly interpret public opinion over the law and may be influenced by campaign funders. There’s also the question whether voters have enough information to pick the best judges. So, how can the typical voter educate himself/herself for whom to vote? “It’s difficult to determine,” said Judge Engelhart. “There are a number of organizations that screen and endorse candidates, including the [Jewish] Herald-Voice and the [Houston] Chronicle. There are nonpartisan groups like the Mexican-American Bar Association of Houston and the GLBT Political Caucus, and some police unions. There are partisan groups, as well, such as Democratic and Republican groups who generally endorse in the primary.” Then, there are the polls run by the Houston Bar Association. The HBA runs two polls of their members around election time. One poll is the HBA Judicial Candidate Qualification Questionnaire. Members of the Houston Bar who practice in front of those judges vote on all the candidates in judicial races, ranking them as “well-qualified,” “qualified,” “not qualified” or “not rated.” “It’s a good tool to figure out which judges are awful,” said Judge Engelhart. “But, decent judges are usually lumped together in a tight continuum.” The second poll is the HBA Judicial Evaluation Questionnaire, an evaluation of the incumbent judges. HBA members rate judges on the basis of how well the judge follows the law, rules decisively and in a timely manner, and demonstrates courtesy, impartiality and preparedness. Both polls are available at HBA.com. Then, there’s word of mouth. “Talk to your lawyer friends,” suggested Engelhart. “They’ll have a sense of the judge’s reputation.” Finally, the League of Women Voters publishes the results of a short questionnaire that goes to the judges. “This questionnaire is useful if a judge or challenger answers thoughtfully,” said Engelhart. “It’s equally informative when a judge or challenger refuses to respond thoughtfully.” Engelhart likes the idea of electing judges. But, he’s not a fan of electing judges by political party, the way we often do in Texas. “It subjects a good judge to the whims of the political cycle, instead of electing or removing him or her based on their relative merit. I’ve seen this happen in Harris County. “To be honest, I won in 2008 largely because my party did well in Harris County. I’m up for election this year. I’d want people to know I received high marks from the Houston Bar. I’m efficient. I have one of the lowest case inventories in the civil courthouse, because I work hard and get my cases to trial. “I think many people don’t understand the judicial system is designed to arrive at the truth and do justice. Justice requires time and a tremendous amount of thoughtful preparation. Justice is not always glamorous. But most often, the result is the right one.” c
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Through the Eyes of the Collector: Jewish Art Collectors in Houston By RACHEL MOHL DUKE | For the JHV
ews have taken a prominent and substantial role in the visual arts since the second half of the 19th century. They were artists such as Camille Pissarro and Max Lieberman; they were dealers like Paul Cassirer and Herwarth Walden; and, they were critics and art historians, including Max Lehrs, Erwin Panofsky and E.H. Gombrich. They also collected. Before World War II, collectors like the Camondos, the Rothchilds and the Bischoffheims championed the arts, many of whom were staunch promoters of the avantgarde. After the Holocaust, the resilient Jewish community not only rebuilt, but strengthened its commitment to supporting the visual arts. As the current art market booms, many in Greater Houston’s own Jewish community have understood the intrinsic value and emotional resonance of art for at least 20 years, if not more. The following five collectors, spotlighted here, represent a mere, yet fascinating, fraction of the Jewish collecting population in this city. While their stories are diverse, there exist certain convergences between these collectors. First, they place importance on educating themselves as they collect, whether through formal or informal means. Furthermore, they see a relationship between art and society. Inasmuch, each collector is involved, in one’s own way, with the art scene and the community, at large. Finally, almost all of the interviewees described their works as children, which illustrates the strong emotional connection they have with their art.
The collecting couple After taking classes at the Women’s Institute of Houston in the late 1970s, Minnette Robinson and her husband Jerome, of blessed memory, began collecting art. The Robinsons started collecting post-war abstraction, with a Helen Frankenthaler as their first acquisition. They then moved to more contemporary art, focusing both on local and international artists. Minnette explained that collecting was something she and her husband did together. They developed great respect for each other, particularly in choosing works. Minnette and Jerome also created the three Ss of collecting: searching, securing and sharing. As they traveled together, the two visited museums and galleries, viewed many works
RACHEL G. MOHL
Minnette Robinson’s collection includes contemporary sculpture and paintings, with works by Bill Woodrow, Tom Wesselmann, Lynn Chadwick, Hans Hoffmann and Sacha Sosno.
and found artists they liked. They then would educate themselves about these particular artists before purchasing a work on the secondary market. Through their passion for art, the couple created a community, both within and outside of Houston. Jerome served on the board of the Blaffer Gallery at University of Houston and Minnette is a member of the Modern and Contemporary subcommittee at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. While Minnette’s collecting has slowed down since her husband’s passing in 2009, she still believes in sharing her collection and enthusiasm for art with the public. “Promoting and collecting art leads to an interesting and fulfilling life,” she said.
Socially conscious collectors Ellen and Stephen Susman have a large collection of contemporary artworks, many of which engage with current social issues. “Artists mirror what society is doing, referencing the events happening today before anyone else,” Ellen explained. As such, while the Susmans collect from diverse artists, there are strong threads connecting their works. For instance, Ellen perceptively relates the pieces by Mickalene Thomas and Ghada Amer in her collection. Thomas often examines the vari-
Stephen and Ellen Susman with U.S. Amb. James Costos in Madrid.
ous roles of African-American women in distinct contexts. Similarly, the Egyptian-American artist Amer scrutinizes societal limitations imposed on women’s attitudes and perceptions about their own bodies. Ellen’s knowledge and passion for art earned her the position of director, Art in Embassies at the U.S. State Department from 2013-2015. In this unique public-private partnership, she worked with artists, galleries, museums and foundations, borrowing art for ambassadors’
Jewish Herald-Voice | Voices in Houston | June 2016 | jhvonline.com | 23
residences and buying art for new embassies in more than 200 U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide. Recently, Ellen joined the advisory board of For Freedoms, an artist-run super PAC dedicated to opening political dialogues through art. Its first exhibition/fundraiser will be held at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, June 7-July 29. While Ellen and Stephen have established relationships with international artists and galleries, they credit Houston with some of the best resources in the art world. Ellen considers Fredericka Hunter of Texas Gallery to be one of her mentors, who taught her how to look. Meanwhile, Stephen’s eyes were opened when he took a course with Josef Albers at Yale University. As they collect, the Susmans transform their enthusiasm for looking into using art to make the world a better place.
From generation to generation A third-generation collector, Heidi Gerger grew up in Austria with art as an integral part of her life. Her parents collected Dutch paintings, antique furniture and contemporary glass. She fondly remembers going to the antique fair in Munich as a family.
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Heidi lived with a unique mixture of art as part of her normal, daily routine. “Art creates an emotional dialogue and puts you in touch with your surroundings,” she said. When she met her husband David, they made collecting a priority. Even when finances were tight, Heidi would save what she could to make modest purchases. The couple joined the Collector’s Circle at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, which was integral to the development of their collection. According to Heidi, through this group, they visited different collectors’ homes and were able to understand how contemporary art fit into the lived space. Inspired by their experiences, Heidi and David began to create their own collection of contemporary art. Their first purchase was a pink Styrofoam star by Richard Tuttle. Most of the pieces in the Gergers’ collection have been purchased from Houston galleries. Involved in the community, Heidi is on the board of Holocaust Museum Houston and initiated the art circle patron group there. For the Gergers, art has played a vital role in creating their home and maintaining generational traditions.
Eclectic tastes While Cyvia Wolff does not consider herself a collector, her home contains wonderfully diverse treasures that she and her husband Melvyn have amassed for more than 50 years. From decorative, hand-painted screens to a Bill Viola (American, b. 1951) video installation to a Maximilian Luce (French, 1858-1941) portrait, the art that fills walls “makes the house warm,” according to Cyvia, who explains that they have both visual and emotional connection to the works they purchase. “Really, they found us as we wandered through different places,” she said. Indeed, the Wolffs have obtained their works from all over the world. Cyvia’s love of art came from her mother, who was an artist and whose pieces are prominently displayed in the Wolffs’ home. It was when she met Melvyn that they began purchasing art. They maintain the rule that they both have to like the work if the couple is going to buy it. Firm believers in giving back to the community, Cyvia and Melvin’s passion for art drew them to a number of institutions in Houston. As a president of Congregation Beth Israel, Cyvia ran the Margolis Art Gallery on the synagogue’s campus. She organized various exhibitions and
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co-authored the catalogue, “Twentieth Century Art: A Revelation” (1982), with Carol Neuberger. Through their endeavors with the synagogue, fellow member Joan Alexander introduced Cyvia and Melvin to Peter Marzio, then-director of MFAH. Now, a trustee of the museum, she explained that her involvement, specifically on the Decorative Arts Committee, nourished her, expanding her knowledge of art. Cyvia and Melvin’s eclectic passion for art opened their lives to enriching experiences both at home and abroad.
The art of giving Joan Morgenstern has a story about every photograph in her collection, which is a testament to her connection not only with the artwork, but also with the artist. One of the greatest joys for her is meeting an artist at the beginning of one’s career and watching him or her grow. Of course, she helps where and when she can. After taking a class in the history of photography at the Glassell School, Joan started collecting in 1985. At the time, works by masters such as Henri Cartier-Bresson or Aaron Siskind were available and reasonably priced. Her favorite photographs to collect, however, are those by young, emerging artists.
JHV: MICHAEL c. DUKE
Joan Morgenstern is an avid collector of photography.
As Joan continued educating herself, she became passionately involved in the community. She was the founding president of Photo Forum, the patron group supporting the photography department at MFAH, where she also is a trustee. Joan conducts portfolio reviews for FotoFest and served as the president of Houston Center for Photography. Through her friendship
with Isabel Herzstein, of blessed memory, she became involved with Congregation Emanu El and its Robert I. Kahn Gallery. In addition to generously giving of her time, she has donated the majority of her photography collection – more than 1,000 works – to MFAH. She also helps the museum and Kahn Gallery collect by funding certain purchases. Inspired by the Jewish tradition of tzedakah, she realized that sharing her passion with the public gives her a strong satisfaction. She first learned this in 1989, when she loaned two of her works to the exhibition, “The Private Eye: Selected Works from Collections of Friends of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.” Joan also views art as a teaching tool – one that can be used to help people learn in different ways, which fuels her drive to continue giving. Morgenstern, the Wolffs, the Gergers, the Susmans and the Robinsons provide a glimpse of the power of art. They also are a testament that collections can start small and grow over time. With passion, concentrated looking and a little bit of education, art can bring fullness and a sense of community into one’s life. Rachel Mohl Duke is curatorial assistant for Latin American Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and a Ph.D. student in Art History at Rice University. c
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The Amazing Journey of Jose Luis Rodriguez By Alice Adams | JHV
he colonias (communities) around Cueramaro, a rural community in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, date back to pre-Columbian times. Housing the poorest of Mexico’s poor, the area was seasoned with the sounds of barking dogs and ragged children playing in the dusty streets that tatted together small, oneroom, dirt-floored shanties of adobe brick into a neighborhood of sorts. It was there that Jose Luis Rodriguez was born in 1964 to 18-year-old Jose and his wife Efijenia. There would be a total of six boys and six girls in this struggling family. “Being the oldest boy was difficult,” said Rodriguez, now 52, owner of Houston Bag & Burlap Co., and president of the Rabbi Joseph Radinsky Charity Fund. “Life was very difficult while I was growing up,” he told the JHV. “They would rent a little place, cram us all in and when another one or two babies were born, we’d move again. Being older, I felt a lot of pressure to help support my family.” There was no running water, indoor plumbing, and everyone slept on the floor. When Luis was 6, he worked with his grandfather Isaac, planting corn and beans. Each harvest, the family shared the bounty. “My grandfather, so many times, would give part of what we grew to people who had nothing. We shared with our neighbors, even though we had little. “My father built houses, so I would leave early with him, helped carry bricks and did odd jobs to help him until 7, when I went home to clean up before going to school in the afternoon.”
Hunger, a constant companion On market days, Luis would take some of his older siblings to the market. “The fruit vendors often left fruit on the peelings, especially pineapples, so I taught my sisters how to grab those peelings from the trash and eat whatever fruit was left,” he said. “… When you’re hungry, that’s how you survive.” By the time he was 12, Luis had become a welder in his uncle’s shop. The youngster brought his earnings home so his mother could buy groceries. Soon, he would become a good
JHV: MICHAEL C. DUKE
Jose Luis Rodriguez has assumed management responsibilities for the Rabbi Joseph Radinsky Charity Fund, following the rabbi’s death on Feb. 19, 2016. Rodriguez also is caring for personal items from Rabbi Radinsky’s life and work.
jack-of-all trades. But, poverty wasn’t the only problem for the youngster. His father rejected him, because his skin was not light-colored like his. The father
drank and would become violent. “My grandmother became my protector and would shelter me from my father’s wrath until she died.” “Because almost everybody in my town was
Jewish Herald-Voice | Voices in Houston | June 2016 | jhvonline.com | 27
Catholic, First Communion and Confirmation were expected rites of passage among children,” Luis remembered. He took Communion, but said the statues of saints in the church were frightening. His mother told him to pray to the saints and they would take care of him. “I tried that, but we were still very poor and I was usually so hungry, my stomach would ache. … Our diet, mainly, was tortillas and beans. …”
Peninsula, maintained a private religious identity behind a facade of Catholicism. The rabbi said anyone whose last name ends with a ‘z’ is a Marrano. “I feel Jewish. I live like a Jew,” said Luis. “I have done this for the past 16 years, just as I have attended United Orthodox Synagogues. In the years when Rebbe and his wife were growing old and were sick, I helped them. Rabbi Radinsky said I have a Jewish soul.”
Questioning his faith
March 1980: Coming to America
As Luis grew older, he began questioning his faith. “I thought, maybe G-d wanted me to live in poverty. Maybe G-d wanted me to know hunger,” he said. “I had no idea. I don’t complain about my parents. I’m complaining about the poverty. Having so many children without any means of supporting them – nowadays is unacceptable – but that’s the way it was back then. “Where I am now in my life, I believe for everything there is a reason. But, G-d doesn’t allow you to choose your parents. It is very mysterious to me. G-d knows all the reasons why. G-d is in charge. We just have to have faith and continue to walk the path to make the best of it.” At this point, Luis interrupted his childhood account. Rabbi Joseph Radinsky, of blessed memory, once told him: Luis, you are a Marrano. The Marranos, or “Secret Jews” of the Iberian
Shortly before his 16th birthday, Luis’ uncle, who had lived in Houston since 1960, invited him to live in Houston. His father accompanied him to the Texas-Mexico border, where the uncle was waiting. The teenager had completed sixth grade and was eager for more education. But once in Houston, he realized his uncle had brought him to America to work. More school was out of the question. He took a job roofing local K-Marts. At 95 pounds, Luis said he wasn’t afraid of hard work, which would enable him to send money back home. His next job was in fast food, at James Coney Island. Luis was quick and caught management’s eye. He received a raise and soon worked up to the cashier position.
Spending his first year in the U.S., Luis eventually moved to Southwest Houston.
Golden opportunity “Every morning, I would walk to where people looking to hire day laborers would go,” he said. “During that 20-minute walk, I found myself passing many companies and factories. I began stopping at every one, asking for work. “When I came to 811 York St., I didn’t see a company name, but heard a lot of machines, so I walked in. The man who approached me was Calman Danziger. … I told him I was looking for a job.” Luis lied that he was 20 and needed work to send money to his family. Danziger, of blessed memory, owner of Houston Bag & Burlap Co., told him to return the next day, when he was given a hand truck to load products on a truck. “… and that was the beginning of a great change, a new beginning for my life.” Luis was a quick learner with an uncanny ability to fix the equipment that periodically would break down, thus saving the company money. He soon became an invaluable member of the Danziger staff and was mentored by both Calman and his brother Benjamin, of blessed memory [father of Houstonian Gail Danziger
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Klein and Leslie Danziger]. Luis and Benjamin formed a bond that would move the young and eager Mexican from the warehouse into the administrative offices, where Benjamin essentially taught Luis how to run the business. By 1995, Luis’ responsibilities had expanded. But, that also was the year Benjy Danziger was diagnosed with leukemia, a disease that would claim his life in 2006. (Calman died in 2004.) “I continued to learn … looking over Benjy’s shoulder,” Luis recalled. “We were like father and son. I learned to run the business for them. Benjy taught me everything, and then one day, he caught me off-guard. “You’re going to be the next generation of Houston Bag & Burlap,” he said. “The Danzigers were the nicest family I had ever known. It was like I had not only lost my best friend but the father-figure who had shaped my life for many years,” Luis admitted.
2000: Attending shul, meeting Rabbi Radinsky At the funeral for Rabbi Radinsky in March 2016, Eli Radinsky, the rabbi’s son, announced that Luis Rodriguez would be the new president of the Rabbi Radinsky Charity Fund. Somehow, it all has begun to make sense. “Rabbi Radinsky made me feel Jewish,” he said. “You help people, you love this religion. “I began attending services at UOS in 2000, 16 years ago,” Luis recounted. “As I moved ahead at the company, I saw how nice, how kind the Danzigers were. I believed their kindness came from their Judaism. “… I saw how Benjy helped people, loaning money to employees, giving us extra checks … Over the years, I saw Benjy was kind to everyone. When I bought my first house, he helped me. When [Benjy] bought a new car, he gave me the old one. “I think it surprised him when, one day, I said, ‘I want to go to shul.’ ” That next Sabbath, Luis was nervous as he entered the UOS sanctuary. “Then, I saw Calman, and he suggested I ask for the Gomez family, who invited me to sit with them and shared their siddur and Chumash and, as the service began, for some reason, I was no longer nervous. It didn’t feel strange,” he remembered. “I saw a man in front, singing in a strong voice. He had a long beard – looked like G-d in the movies. “… That was the first time I met Rabbi Radinsky. It was the beginning, and from that day forward, unless it was something unusual, I have rarely missed services.” (Luis also prays daily, three times a day.)
JHV: MICHAEL C. DUKE
A denim cowboy hat that Rabbi Joseph Radinsky wore to shul on rainy days now serves as a daily reminder for Luis Rodriguez of his dear friend and spiritual guide.
The rabbi played an integral part in Luis’ life and, in turn, Luis became more than a friend to Rabbi Radinsky and his wife Juliette, of blessed memory. “Whatever the rebbe asked of me, I would do,” he said. As Luis and the rabbi came to know each other, the rabbi invited Luis and his wife, Sylvia, for a “romantic Shabbat dinner” in his home. “He liked Sylvia right away, mainly because she laughed at his jokes. ...” Then, the rabbi invited her to shul and Shabbat lunch every Sabbath. As their friendship grew and over the last 10 years, through the illness and death of Juliette and the rabbi’s own illness, retirement and decline, Luis would visit him every day after work, taking him a kosher meal and staying to visit. “I feel so blessed, being able to learn about Judaism from the rebbe and from Benjy Danziger. Both helped me not only understand the traditions but also to embrace them as my own,” he added. One of the many treasured lessons Luis applies to his life is the rabbi’s belief you can be the best person G-d wants you to be. “He was the people’s rabbi,” Luis said. “His house was always open – always open for people to come in. He opened his door to me and my wife and we became better people.” Through their friendship, Luis began contributing to the rabbi’s charity fund. “During the four-month process of taking ownership of Houston Bag & Burlap, I called Rabbi Radinsky every day and each time, he gave me a blessing and made me comfortable
with what I was doing,” Luis recalled. “… I was blessed by his love, his caring and his wisdom through this transition and into the future.” As he became able, Luis increased his contributions to and support of the rabbi’s fund, even after the rabbi’s death; and funds have dropped off substantially, he said. “Now, as when the rabbi was alive, I knew the fund was helping people.” Luis also continues to run the business the Danziger family began. “I was sitting with Benjy when he gave me his blessing saying, ‘Everything will come to you from Heaven,’ ” he said. Luis paused in his conversation with the JHV, emotional from the memories. “Everything in my office makes me remember how blessed my life has been. There are many pictures of Rebbe and his wife, as well as boxes full of his books and his furniture.” Luis has embraced his new responsibility as president of the Rabbi Radinsky Charity Fund, along with caring for his mother in Mexico, running his business and adoring his wife, three children and three grandchildren. “I’m trying to do it the way Rabbi Radinsky did it, although he received much more support, even after he retired in 2003. In 2004, the rabbi separated the charity fund from the synagogue, applied for and received 501-(c) (3) nonprofit designation and make a decision based on how much was available in the fund. “The rebbe wanted to make sure the need was legitimate when people came to him for help, but was always glad to provide tuition money for kids to get a Jewish education. He
Jewish Herald-Voice | Voices in Houston | June 2016 | jhvonline.com | 29
A Symbol of Distinction Care for Life
also provided money to pay for medical expenses, pay electric bills and to fill other needs.” Luis said the rabbi’s fund also helped yeshiva students in Chicago and Baltimore; paid for food for people struggling, especially in a bad economy. His fund made it possible for people to go to Israel and it helped an orphanage in Israel. As director of the fund, Luis is responsible to 12 board members. “… Everyone we help is held as confidential. Only the president knows the recipients’ entire names. “When he was alive and in his last years, Rabbi did everything. Now, I continue performing those same tasks, and I continue to tell others what we do, how the fund helps those who are in need and struggling. Perhaps, they will, in turn, tell others,” Luis said. All donations are tax deductible and there is no overhead, as board members are volunteers. “… I buy stationery supplies and stamps out of pocket, so every penny coming into the fund goes to help people. Rabbi called this ‘the special fund.’ … Only those in need – the recipients – use the fund.” Luis continued, “The rabbi saw good in everyone, and he encouraged them to embrace the good he saw. He inspired me to be the best I could be, and I also learned whenever the rabbi called, whatever he needed, I could never tell him no. Not ever – even when he was asking me to help another person.”
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My Summer Monologue: A Thought on Prayer By yAEL tRUSCH | FOR tHE JHV
s a mom of young children, I spend many summer afternoons sitting by the pool at the J with my kids. One Tuesday, I ran into an old friend and her 7-year-old at the pool. She asked about my oldest, 9-year-old son. With mixed emotions I told her that he just went off to sleep-away camp the week prior. Yes, for the first time, at just 9 years old, for four entire weeks, miles and miles away! After she got past the initial shock and we discussed it further, I told her how the camp manages parents’ communication with campers. My son gets to call home twice during the four weeks of camp, though we don’t know exactly when he’ll call. He writes and mails a letter every Friday before Shabbat. In addition, I can email my son as much as I want. “So, did he email you back? What does he have to say!?” my friend asked.
“No, he doesn’t email back. The camp staff prints out the emails and gives them to him, but he doesn’t get to email us back,” I responded. Suddenly, her 7-year-old son, who had been sitting there with us throughout the conversation, turned to me and said, “Why do you email him, if he can’t email you back?” In other words, “Lady, I hate to break it to you, but it sounds like you’re having a monologue. Why bother!?” Leave it to kids to stun you with their questions. They must be acting as G-d’s messengers, sometimes, to try to teach us a thing or two. At the moment, I had no real answer to this simple question, but it definitely got me thinking, and not just about my communication with my son. Why do we email him? Starting from the first erev Shabbat that my son was away (he left on a Wednesday) I have taken a few minutes daily to send him a short email. I tell him that I hope he’s having a nice time, and what’s going on with our family back
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here in Houston. His younger sisters also send him short emails, in which they tell him about their day camp and what they’re up to at home. But, again, “Why do we email him!?” I email my child, knowing that I’m not going to get his immediate response. Yet, it doesn’t bother me, or preclude me from doing it. Even though he’s miles away, as I sit to write those short emails, I feel connected to him. I know that when my son reads my emails he also will feel connected to me. I know that he will read each and every one of the emails, and cherish them as much as I cherish writing them. Furthermore, despite the limited, seemingly one-way communication, I know that he will somehow, someday respond to my emails. Answers may come in different bits and pieces, across different media – some in the form of a letter; some via the short phone calls; some during a drive or a late-night chat once he comes back home; or even quite a few days after he’s settled back at home. No immediate
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Him. And, even though we know that He may not answer in the same exact way that we addressed Him, He will answer us. But, there’s something else about this “monologue,” be it the one with G-d or the one with my son. When I sit down to email my son, I am forced to first think about what and how I’m going to write. Instead of writing, “Are you having a great time?” I’ll say, “I hope you’re having a great time.” Or instead of writing, “Do you like the food?” I’ll word it something like, “I noticed hot dogs, fries and pickles in the pictures the counselors put up on the website. I bet you were so happy with that food.” I also watch
answers via email, but answers nonetheless. That same Tuesday, right before leaving for the pool and meeting my friend and her cute 7 year old, I received, and excitedly read, a handwritten letter from my son. (The first time I had heard from him since I dropped him off at the airport, a week earlier.) It was a short letter, which he had written prior to receiving most of my emails to date. Yet, upon reading the letter, I felt like he addressed most everything I had said to him via email. And, this is precisely my answer to my friend’s cute 7 year old – (OK, OK, to myself) “This is not a monologue! And, it’s certainly not inconsequential.” In fact, it’s quite similar to our communication with G-d, otherwise known as prayer. And, I’m not referring here just to the act of saying the words from a Siddur – although I mean those, too. I’m referring to the whole gamut of what prayer really is – avoda she b’lev, service of the heart. I say that because most women, particularly those who are mothers of young children, are hardly found with an open prayer book, meticulously pronouncing the pre-scripted text. However, I think we have cornered the prayer market. That talking to G-d thing, we just somehow know how to do it, intuitively. We do it quite often, and almost as naturally as sending emails to our beloved child in camp. Most of us are not privy to hear the voice of Hashem. However, we still talk to Him. We pray. We do it because we feel connected to Him when we do. We do it knowing that He treasures our attempts at connecting with
how I express myself. Even if I miss my son dearly, I will not write anything that could make him feel like his family can’t manage without him. Yes, he is missed. But, what he should know and feel is that although we miss him, we believe that he should be there, and that we trust he’s gaining a tremendous amount from this experience. He should know that we are excited and happy for him. Similarly, the words, tefilah (prayer) or l’hitpalel (to pray), come from the shoresh (root word) p-l-l, which means to judge. Therefore, our sages tell us that l’hitpalel, a reflective form of the verb, also could be translated as “to judge oneself.” Not only is the objective of prayer to reinforce our connection with G-d, but ideally, when we pray, we make a self-judgement. We try to become cognizant of what we’re saying and how we’re saying it: Is what I’m requesting from Hashem the right thing to ask? Am I truly asking for the right reasons? What am I doing, or could be doing, to merit my request? This is how the act of prayer ultimately refines us as human beings – through the intentional self-judgement, selfreflection, that occurs during the “monologue” with G-d. I doubt the camp developed their communications policy based on the concept of prayer. But, I’ve learned that, in likeness to prayer, these seemingly inconsequential emails strengthen my relationship with my child and help me become a better parent. Thus, as I sit by the pool all summer long, I’ll most certainly carry on with my share of “summer monologues.” c
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