Ezra Academy

Freelance writer Howard Blasreports on the Pilot Pen Tennis Tournie in New Haven – from a Jewish perspective. The tournament was still in full swing as the Ledger went to press.

Ezra Academy makes a night of it
Ezra Academy of Woodbridge joined thousands of fans at the Pilot Pen Tennis tournament that kicked off at the Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale on August 23 and will run through August 29. According to Head of School, Rabbi Amanda Brodie, “This year at Ezra, we are highlighting health and fitness for life. Ezra parents, Jody Ellant and Howard Reiter, responded to an offer for $1 Pilot Pen tickets and purchased 180 for the evening session on Monday, August 24, which they made available to the Ezra community.” Ellant notes, “We, as a family, have attended the Pilot Pen tournament since its inception. The Pilot Pen tournament is a fabulous opportunity to see world class athletes perform right here in our community. It is a wonderful way to begin the school year.”

Israelis in the Pilot Pen Draw…almost
Ezra also came out to celebrate an historic year for Israel’s tennis professionals. Israel’s Dudi Sela, currently ranked 34th in the world, was invited to play in the Pilot Pen but pulled out after dropping out of last week’s Western and Southern Financial Group tournament in Cincinnati, Oh. The 24-year old Sela, who played in last year’s Pilot Pen, aggravated a groin injury and dropped out in the second set of his first round match. He hopes to recover in time for the upcoming U.S. Open in New York. 

Shahar Peer, ranked 58th in the world, and recovering from a stress fracture earlier in the summer, came to New Haven after reaching the third round of the Rogers Cup in Toronto. Peer was not given an automatic invitation to the tournament; such invitations were only issued to the top 44 ranked females. The 22-year old Peer played late in the afternoon of August 21 versus Italy’s Tathiana Garbin in the first round of the qualifiers. She was down 7-5, 2-2 in Friday’s qualifying match before a rainstorm suspended the match. Several hours later, and after eight ball kids used high powered blowers to dry the court, Garbin and Peer resumed their match in an empty stadium. Garbin defeated Peer 7-5, 6-4. Peer left New Haven early Monday morning for New York where she will prepare for the U.S. Open.

Israel doubles specialists, Andy Ram and Jonathan Erlich, familiar faces in New Haven after appearing in several recent Pilot Pens, did not play this year.

This has been a year of successes and stressful moments for Israeli tennis. In July, Israel stunned the tennis world when it clinched a berth in the semifinal of the 2009 Davis Cup. A capacity crowd of 11,000 fans witnessed the doubles team of Andy Ram and Jonathan Erlich, as they defeated Russians Marat Safin and Igor Kunitsyn, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7(3), 4-6, 6-4. One day earlier, Harel Levy, ranked 210 in the world, defeated Igor Andreev in the opening match of the Davis Cup and 33rd ranked Dudi Sela defeated Russian Mikhail Youzhny.

Four months earlier, the Israeli tennis team competed against host Sweden in Malmo, Sweden. Due to concerns that violent protests would erupt over Israel’s actions in Gaza, the indoor arena was left empty. In that tournament, Dudi Sela defeated former Australian Open Champion,Thomas Johansson, 3-6, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, and Harel Levy outlasted Swede, Andreas Vinciguerra, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 8-6, in a three and a half hour match.

In February, Shahar Peer made headlines when the United Arab Emirates denied her a visa, making it impossible for her to play in the Dubai championship. In response, the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour levied an unprecedented series of fines, penalties and warnings against the tournament. Peer received $44,245, an average of the prize-money she received for singles and doubles at events last year; the tournament was fined a record $300,000 for a breach of tour rules and the event will have to post a $2 million financial performance guarantee by July 1 for a number of conditions it must meet to stage the event in 2010, including the guarantee of a wild card for Peer if her ranking is not high enough for a place in the main draw.

The response from the women’s game marks a watershed. Larry Scott, the tour’s chief executive officer, said: “These actions send a clear message that we will not tolerate discrimination and we will not allow this situation to happen again.”

The United Arab Emirates then gave “special permission” for Andy Ram, then the number 11 ranked doubles player in the world, to be granted a visa so that he could play in an event in Dubai the following week.

Young Jewish players in the Pilot Pen qualifiers
Three of the 32 players in the female qualifying singles tournament are Jewish. In addition to Shahar Peer, Rachel Kahan and Gail Brodsky vied for spots in the main draw. Kahan, a home-schooled high school senior from Unionville, received a wild card into the qualifying tournament of the Pilot Pen after winning the Prequalifier-Yale Summer Championships. After losing the first four games to Romanian Monica Niculescu, Kahan, dressed in black shorts, shirt and cap, battled back to lose the first set 6-4. Niculescu ultimately won 6-4, 6-0.

Gail Brodsky, 18, who was born in the Ukraine and moved with her parents to Brooklyn, N.Y. 12 years ago, fought hard in her qualifying match, but lost to Italy’s Roberta Vinci, 6-0, 6-1. The home-schooled Brodsky has been training at the Weil Tennis Academy in California. She tells the Ledger that this is her first time in New Haven, and that she will soon move to Melbourne, Fla. Brodsky notes that the Jewish players are “friendly with each other.”

Jesse Levine, who lost in last year’s fourth round to Pilot Pen finalist, Mardy Fish, lost in the first round of qualifier singles and therefore is not in the main draw. Scott Lipsky made it to the main draw for men’s doubles with partner, Robert Kendrick.

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WOODBRIDGE — When Debbie Roth wanted to make Shakespeare come alive for her eighth grade English class at Ezra Academy in Woodbridge, she had a clever idea: Why not bring in a real actor who has performed Shakespeare on the stage? And so she did – enlisting the aid of Bruce Altman, a veteran actor of stage and screen who also happens to be the parent of an Ezra Academy alum.

Altman readily agreed to set aside time from his busy acting and auditioning schedule to visit the school, and did so twice – once to teach students about Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and once to critique the students as they performed various scenes from the play.

“For the kids to see a professional actor perform Shakespeare inspires them to read the play in a different way”, observes Roth, who has taught English and Spanish at the Amity Road day school for the past 13 years. “The first time Bruce came, he talked about the play and about the character of Shylock in particular. During Altmans second visit, he asked the students to reconfigure the room to resemble a stage. This isn’t English class – it is an acting workshop,” Altman playfully informed the class.

Asked if he was required to memorize lines for auditions, Altman said, “not for TV or movies, but usually for plays – I usually use a monologue of Richard the Second.”

Calling upon the students to read selections from the play, Jeff Spivack of Hamden shoe Lorenzos speech because, as he explained to Altman, “It is really poetic – about the moon and music. And it is really up to ones own interpretation.” Altman approved.

“That was beautiful,” he said. “Im really touched by it!” Before Spivack performed his selection a second time, Altman suggested that he take a moment to relax his body.

“Take in the moonlight,” he counselled. “Really imagine that moon. This is a really good audition piece – full of smells and feelings.”

Elizabeth Skalka was next to perform. She chose Shylock because, as she explained to Altman, “There is so much feeling between Shylock and Antonio. He has been holding it in for so long – now, he can tell him how he really feels.”

“That was great – did you notice there were moments when your hands moved?” asked Altman after watching her for several moments.

As Altman listened, he applied lessons learned from Jewish texts and Jewish history to the acting process. For example, he told them, “Memorization is great – the great Jewish scholars memorized long passages from the Talmud.”

After Ariel Rock presented Shylocks speech in Act III, Altman asked what the student thought Shakespeare meant when he wrote: “If you prick a Jew, do we not bleed, if you poison us, do we not die?” Explained Rock: “[It means] that Jews are the same as everyone else.”

Altman then engaged the class in a discussion of the blood libel and the myth of Jews poisoning the wells. Altman and family regularly attend the egalitarian Shabbat minyan at Yale University’s Slifka Center.

As the bell rang, Altman wrapped up by telling the class that it is okay to have differing interpretations of the text. “I got some of my best ideas when I saw someone doing something I didnt agree with. So Lital, it is okay to play the part cynically, even though Lizzy is saying, Play it more depressed!”

Altman, who will soon appear in Recount, an HBO movie about the 2000 Bush/Gore Florida election that will air in May, was blown away by the lesson.

“It was a powerful experience for me. I am really impressed with the students. They are so alive, and comfortable responding. Mrs. Roth has done a great job.” 

The students shared Altmans sentiment about the lesson. As they filed out of the room for the next period, they offered careful analysis of the class.

“Bruce gave us new insight into how to act and understand and feel the text”, noted Solomon Botwick Reis. Jeff Spivack concurred. “It was interesting to get an actors point of view on such an old text”, he said.

Then, as if to remind the class that they are still kids, Josh Grove smiled and noted proudly, “It was cool to know an actor!”

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