Local Author Pens Bucket-List Book About Philadelphia


Irene Levy Baker, a married mother of two, explained how she ended up a Philly expert, despite originally hailing from Youngstown, Ohio.

There was almost a line out the door last week to hear Irene Levy Baker, owner of Spotlight Public Relations, talk about her new book, 100 Things to Do in Philadelphia Before You Die.

Baker went to Melrose Park to speak to a group of Hadassah members, who queued up in the foyer of Ellen and Michael Matz’s home to meet Levy Baker and buy a signed copy of her book.

Sara Koval, a stay-at-home mom of three who lives in Cheltenham, knew this one was a can’t-miss event because of the book’s subject matter.

“I’m always trying to find something fun or interesting to do, especially with teenagers,” she said. “I thought, ‘Maybe there’s something out there I don’t know about.’”

After some introductory remarks, Levy Baker, a married mother of two, explained how she ended up a Philly expert, despite originally hailing from Youngstown, Ohio.

“I landed here in 1991, and my first job was working for the [Philadelphia] Convention & Visitors Bureau,” she said. “And my job there was giving tours to travel writers, and they are the most jaded travelers in the world because every city wines and dines and tries to impress them. So I was doing that in Philadelphia, and I paid attention to what impressed them, what delighted them, what surprised them.

“Then I spent 17 years at a public relations firm … So doing that, I kind of got the behind-the-scenes insider look at all those places.”

When Reedy Press came to Levy Baker and asked if she’d be interested in penning the Philadelphia installment of their “100 Things to Do in ______ Before You Die” series, she initially gave them a hard time, she said, because Philly was 40th in the series. “Like, really, Little Rock before Philadelphia? Cleveland before Philadelphia?”

Then she had to consider whether she was suited to the assignment.

“I thought about how I’m a personal concierge to my friends … So I thought maybe I could put these things in the book.”

Next she had to think about how people would use the book, and she came up with several ideas.

“I see them using it as an adventure starter: Open it up, pick a place and go,” she said. “Some people use it like a passport: You open it up and put the date and put your own tips in.”

The hardest part, she said, was limiting the choices to just 100 things.

She divided the book into five sections: food and drink; music and entertainment; culture and history; sports and recreation; and shopping and fashion.

“Clearly, culture and history is the longest because it is Philadelphia, after all,” she said. “The second longest is food and drink because that’s my passion.”

But of course Levy Baker’s passions may not be other people’s passions, so she created separate suggested itineraries: “Young Families,” “Families With Teens,” “Dates,” “Empty Nesters,” “Free,” “Happy Hour/Drinks,” “Near the Pennsylvania Convention Center” and “Philadelphia Sites in the Movies.” She also has activities divided by season.

“That’s my goal — to help people fall in love with Philadelphia all over again,” she said.

With that in mind, we picked a few things from Levy Baker’s book that could fit on an itinerary of activities that pertain to Jewish interest.

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. Levy Baker told the group at Matz’s house: “I compare what Isaiah Zagar did with the Magic Gardens to what J.K. Rowling did when she created Hogwarts or what Frank L. Baum did when he created The Wizard of Oz. He created a world with art the way they created a world with words.”

Rosenbach Museum. This is Levy Baker’s answer to, “Where should I take my mother-in-law?’” “It’s a tiny museum owned by the Free Library of Philadelphia that has a collection of books and antique furniture,” she told the Hadassah group. “It’s on the prettiest street, Delancey, in the prettiest neighborhood, Rittenhouse Square. And she’ll only be on her feet for about an hour.”

Zahav/Federal Donuts. In her book, Levy Baker recommends all of Israeli-born chef Michael Solomonov’s ventures, including Abe Fisher (“featuring foods of the Jewish experience”) and the “casual hummusiya” Dizengoff.

Vedge. “Gain New Respect for Vegetables” is Levy Baker’s headline for the page that features Rich Landau’s plaudits-earning restaurant. Each page features an insider tip for the reader. Here, she reveals that the restaurant holds a few tables aside for walk-ins (just in case that OpenTable time slots are filled up).

InterAct Theatre Company. Led by the vision of Seth Rozin, InterAct is one of two theater companies specifically highlighted in Levy Baker’s appreciation of the city’s theater scene. “InterAct Theatre Company commissions, develops and produces new plays that explore contemporary social, political, and cultural issues,” she wrote.

Jewish Film Festival/Israeli Film Festival. Levy Baker devotes a page to Philadelphia’s multiple film festivals, which include the Philadelphia Film Society’s annual Philadelphia Film Festival; the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival; qFLIX; Blackstar Film Festival; First Glance Film Festival; Latino Film Festival; Terror Film Festival; Women’s Film Festival; the Philadelphia Film and Animation Fest; Awesome Fest; and two of Jewish interest — the Israeli Film Festival and the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival.

Elfreth’s Alley. The oldest continuously occupied residential street in U.S. history may not be the first thing that comes to mind when doing a tour of Jewish Philadelphia. But, as Levy Baker points out, one of the street’s early residents was a Jewish merchant.

Laurel Hill Cemetery. As Levy Baker points out, Laurel Hill was the nation’s first cemetery designated as a National Historic Landmark. While it’s not known for Jewish burial, its sister cemetery, West Laurel Hill, is. That cemetery’s Chesed Shel Emet, a designated Jewish section, opened in 2011. Make a day of it and visit both.

National Museum of American Jewish History. This is just one of the many places where visitors can “melt into the great melting pot,” as Levy Baker puts it in her book.

For more information or to buy the book, go to 100thingstodoinphiladelphia.com.

Contact: lspikol@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0747


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