Mary in front of one of her photographs in her Sunnyside apartment
Festival of Mexican Artistic Expression, Tepeyac Association, Queens, NY

©Mary Teresa Giancoli

“I wanted to find out what is the root of these traditions.”

When Mary Teresa Giancoli began to immerse herself into Mexican culture in New York City it was a challenge. The patrons at the small Mexican church on 14th Street celebrating the Virgin of Guadalupe were suspicious and did not want to be photographed.“I am not fluent in Spanish and I don’t look Mexican,” says Mary, who has photographed Mexican rituals for 17 years. But having had a Mexican grandfather, whom she has never met, was “a touching point” and “a mystery” that she was determined to unravel. “I really wanted to find out where the center of Mexican life is in New York and this was part of my search.”

One thing Mary found at the little church was her husband, Cristian Peña, a Mexican and fellow photographer. (Cristian even appears in some of her early photographs.) Eventually the couple had iced tea after one of the events. “That was when the grand love was born,” Mary says giggling. Mary, Cristian and their seven-year-old daughter Leila now often travel to Mexico to visit remote villages where the couple documents festivities and everyday life.

“I wanted to find out what is the root of these traditions,” Mary says. “What is it like in Mexico, how are they celebrated there? So there is this continual dialogue about what is happening in Mexico and what is happening in the United States. There is a lot of fusion because the traditions evolve in the United States and mix with the American traditions.”

To trace Mexican customs in the U.S. back to their origins, Mary visited Mexican tortilla factories in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and tortilla makers in Cuetzalan, Mexico. Her award-winning work documents Mexican celebrations in community centers and churches in New York and in Puebla, and market scenes in Atlixco, featuring protagonists whose relatives have left to work in America.

In the podcast Mary talks about the photo of the three little girls above and the origins of the traditional China Poblana costumes they are wearing.


Chumi Lerman and her daughter Shoshana

“The rabbi’s wife is the unofficial filling-in-the-blanks-of-whatever-is-needed.”

A wooden dining table that seats ten people or more welcomes guests as they enter the home of Nechama, or Chumi, as Rabbi Lerman’s wife is commonly known. Chumi’s four-month-old daughter Shoshana gurgles and fidgets on the couch nearby.

I begin the conversation by asking, “What are the traditional duties of the rabbi’s wife?” but quickly realize that my question may be premature (or even obsolete, considering the large table and newborn). Chumi became a “rebbetzin,” the official title, just last March, when her husband took on the available position at the Young Israel of Sunnyside Synagogue. The couple moved their three-year-old twins Chaim and Ahava and their six-year-old daughter Bracha from Jerusalem to Sunnyside just in time for Chumi to give birth to Shoshana. While having to settle and furnish their new house in Sunnyside Gardens, attend to a long chain of holiday and Torah celebrations, and find Jewish schools for the older children, Chumi made efforts to get to know the members of the orthodox community and familiarize herself with their needs. The couple is constantly broadening their email list and Chumi has joined the Yahoo Group SunnyMoms to find out more about how she can help the community grow.

“The rabbi’s wife is the unofficial fill-in-the-blanks-of-whatever-is-needed,” she says, giggling at her understatement. While each couple and community decides on the rebbitzin’s role and duties, she is traditionally expected to host guests for meals over Shabbat. At those meals, the small size of Sunnyside’s orthodox Jewish community allows Chumi to pay special attention to people they “want to connect to more.”

Chumi’s new role is familiar to her not only because giving and caring is one of the three pillars of Judaism. The daughter of a rabbi and an educator, Chumi earned her master’s degree in education from Long Island University before she moved to Israel 11 years ago. In Jerusalem she taught at a public school and acted as a “dorm-mother,” counseling American girls studying abroad.

Chumi’s commitment to service only continues to grow. She and her husband have planned a series of events for this and next week’s Chanukah celebrations, including an open event on Friday night with songs, “Inspirational Torah” and hot kugel at their house on 47th Street. On Sunday, the community plays “Jewpardy,” shows an animated Chanukah children’s video and serves potato latkes, doughnuts and a dairy buffet at the synagogue on 43rd Avenue.

In the podcast Chumi tells us about orthodox Jewish dating traditions and how she met her husband.

Listen to Chumi’s interview


Kevin, actor etc.

Kevin’s support system

“Never have a backup because anything is easier than acting.”

Kevin Kolack started his voiceover career as a nine-year-old. His “Teddy Tapes” featured stuffed animals gossiping about soccer practice and about who liked whom in grade school. “I had no idea that I would be allowed to do this as a job,” Kevin said as we sat down to talk in his Celtic Park apartment. “I think it’s pretty hilarious that I get paid to make funny sounds.”Before Kevin got paid to make funny sounds, he was a taxi driver, a college professor, a firefighter, an Olympic-level marksman, a soccer coach, a puppeteer, a swimming instructor, a florist and a magician. He has a PhD in Chemistry, a scuba diving certificate, a helicopter license, and is as adept in  white water rafting as he is in skydiving, fire-eating and archery.

Kevin is currently fully committed to his acting and voiceover career, and his special skills have landed him roles as paramedics in the TV series Law and Order and White Collar. (Just recently he cast himself in the role of Professor K, the main character in a science TV show for children he created.)

Kevin advices to “Never have a back-up, because anything is easier than acting.” Each week he does multiple voiceover auditions, which he records behind a soundproofing egg crate partition in his apartment. The self-marketing an acting career requires is very time-consuming, and rejections are not uncommon. Things are further complicated by “the never-ending supply of people trying [to be actors], getting to auditions late and getting the casting director pissed off,” he said. “Everyone wants to be a star, so why not try it. [But] you have a much better chance to become a working actor if you’ve had a life and have some experience that you can bring to your role.”

I forgot to ask Kevin which of his skills he relied on the most in his role as a turtle in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figure commercial. I can only assume it was not fire-eating, but you never know when that might come in handy. Thankfully, I caught him on tape as he did the voice of a pile of puke.

Oh, and I should mention: Kevin is the husband of Diane Kolack.

Listen to Kevin’s interview


Diane getting ready to turn an old pumpkin into soup. (It was asking for it.)

Diane’s dog Queso Blanco prefers kale and duck hotdog over pumpkin, even though I told her that the soup is going to keep her warm.

“It’s liberating to open up your choices to eating what grew on the farm this week.”

This week Diane Kolack’s “box” contained one and a half pounds of string beans. While string beans are not her favorite vegetable, they embody a Weltanschauung that is dear to her heart and stomach.

“Definitely it could be a burden,” Diane said as we sat in her Celtic Park co-op enveloped by the smell of baked squash and fresh applesauce. “But it could also be exciting and fun. It’s liberating to open up your choices to eating what grew on the farm this week.”

As the founder of Sunnyside Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), Diane knows where her string beans came from. Picked just a couple of days ago at the Golden Earthworm Organic Farm on Long Island, they were packed in individual boxes along with potatoes, squash and other vegetables in season and shuttled less than 80 miles West to Sunnyside Community Services. On Thursday between 5 and 8 PM, they were picked up by 150 “shareholders” ready (or not) for their bounty. The shareholders had signed up with the farm at the beginning of the season and paid $540 for 26 weeks of vegetables, or 26 boxes, each feeding a household of four.

Diane thinks that knowing the genesis of her string beans makes it harder to dislike them. “It also makes your cooking better,” she said, pointing out the delicious string bean salad she made last night. A student of sustainable food studies at CUNY, Diane went on to criticize the American obsession with choice. “It’s like ‘I want to eat this condiment with this food at this time and if I don’t get it, I’m very unsatisfied.’ ”

(Diane is married to Kevin Kolack.)

Listen to Diane’s interview


Blogger Christian Murray of the Sunnyside Post

After Christian reported about pigeon dirt on newspaper boxes, Jimmy Van Bramer was quick to have the feces removed.

“This is my neighborhood. I want to know what’s going on. Everyone needs to know what’s going on.”

Each day Christian Murray takes his two Boston Terriers on a long walk through Sunnyside. He carries a camera and a notebook to  gather material for his website, the Sunnyside Post. Christian misses no community board or police precinct meeting. Whether residents complain about the size of their Christmas tree, Sunnyside hosts a Pumpkin Day or troublemaker Casa Romana incenses the community with a Wet-T-Shirt and Oil-Wrestling Party, Christian reports, follows up and often sets an example for local community leaders. (A couple of days after Christian reported on the planned event, Jimmy Van Bramer announced the event thwarted.)

“This is my neighborhood. This is where I live. I want to know what’s going on. Everyone needs to know what’s going on,” Christian says matter-of-factly as we sit down to talk. A financial reporter for Thompson Reuters by day and a blogger during late night and lunch break hours, the native New Zealander started the Sunnyside Post two years ago. He updates the blog at least ten times a week, with roughly half of all postings gleaned from local newspapers and the other half featuring original reporting.

“I sometimes spend two or three hours a day [on the blog],” he says. “My wife thinks I am crazy.” But his website provides him pleasure, and the human interest issues offer a good balance to his “dry and abstract” nine-to-five job.

A few months ago the Sunnyside Post began posting ads from local businesses and institutions, including Camp Bow Wow, the Sunnyside Reformed Church and Santa Fe Steak House, and most recently it was revamped to better reflect Christian’s main focus, “Keeping the vitality of our main streets going.” The Sunnyside Post now also collects suggestions on how to improve business on Queens Boulevard.

In the podcast, Christian talks about a large fire on 42nd Street that other news outlets failed to report and about his blogging obsession.

Listen to Christian’s interview