The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Culture in Unusual Places

External view of a 105-year-old Jewish synagogue in Harbin, China / image courtesy of the Museum of Family History

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival takes place every summer, bringing amazing world cultural events to the National Mall! Every year has a specific theme and in 2014 they’ve been focusing on China and Kenya.

Doubtless the Festival has done a great job in covering many aspects of these nations. But allow me to expand on their efforts! For the last few years, inspired by our local Folklife tradition, I have researched and brought attention to the widely diverse world Jewish communities. Jewish culture has touched almost every region of the world, and of course vice versa. So let us begin.

China
The first substantial evidence of Jews making their way to China, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, occurred during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), as Jews from Persia settled in Kaifeng, although smaller pockets also lived in other cities. Primarily brought there by international trade and the expanding Silk Road, these Jewish settlers found religious tolerance in their new home, and ergo started to assimilate well to Chinese culture. The Song dynasty was overthrown by the Jin (1127-1233), but the Jews continued their religious life, and continued to pay homage to their old overseers.

The Mongols established the Yuan Dynasty, lasting until 1368, when Jews both benefited from being “foreigners” (the Mongols were also not Chinese and ergo promoted “foreign” groups such as themselves to government positions) but also a ban on Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter, based on xenophobia. Further Jews might have been brought to China at this point as slaves, and Jewish practice in Kaifeng diversified.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) brought the ethnic Han Chinese back to power, and life continued to improve for the Jews, both in religious practice, where they were allowed to rebuild and add to their synagogue (non-Jews also helped and were commemorated), and in public life. Though the community only spanned 5,000 members, many Jews rose prominently in government and other fields like the military and medicine. This provided some negative setbacks in that the Jewish community became so involved with Chinese civic life that devotion to their own religion and customs decreased. And in 1642, when the Dynasty broke the Yellow River Dams to squash a peasant rebellion, half of the 600,000 Kaifeng residents died; the synagogue and other Jewish artifacts were destroyed.

The Jewish community continued to decline under the Qing Dynasty (1642-1912), which was unfriendly to religious minorities and took away many of their rights to settle their own affairs, particularly as the Christian and Muslim populations grew. Many Chinese couldn’t differentiate between the Jews and the Muslims, leading Jews to hide their identities as Muslim rebellions were being brutally suppressed; also Christian missionary work was in full swing, and subsequently missionaries were banned from the country. Chinese Jews became more and more isolated as their government continued to close its borders, and evidence on the history of the Kaifeng Jews between 1725 and 1850 is limited. When a British counsel visited then, he reported that there were under 1,000 remaining Jews, and that they looked exactly like the Han Chinese. The community no longer knew Hebrew, or even the precise day of the Sabbath. They sold most of their holy books to the missionaries for meager prices.

Some customs remained, eg keeping Jewish burial grounds and ritual kosher slaughter, including a ban on pork. The Jews also started looking for people to translate their holy texts. Egyptian and Iraqi Jewish merchants who settled in Shanghai in the late 19th/early 20th century attempted to revive Jewish Kaifeng, unsuccessfully, and in 1914 the Jews sold off their synagogue to an Anglican bishop.

Other Jewish communities existed in Kiafeng, when the merchant trade brought Jews as early as the 8th century. They became the Pien-Liang Jews when allowed into that city in 960 CE, building the Purity and Truth synagogue and thriving until the 17th century with 5,000 members. Since then, it’s been in decline due to war, poverty and isolation, but in the modern age, they are trying to reconnect to the world Jewish community, though less than 100 individuals partake in Jewish activities.

Russian Jews moved to Harbin in the late 19th century, as encouraged by their government to build up population for the Russian railway into eastern Asia. Many Jews stayed, raising the population to 8,000 to 1908, due to rising antisemitism in Eastern Europe. Persecuted Ashkenazi Jews also flocked to Shanghai when it was opened to foreigners in 1842. But the majority of the Jews there were Sephardic—from Baghdad, Bombay and Cairo. The Jewish population reached 700, mostly merchants though some in medicine, teaching and diplomatic service. Shanghai’s Jewish population jumped severely, to 25,000, as the Lubavitch Hassidm and other ultra-Orthodox Jews fled in the wake of Hitler’s succession. When Japan captured Shanghai in 1947, however, the Jews were evicted to slums, suffered great economic loss, and many immigrated after the war.

Most of Beijing’s 2,000-strong Jewish community is very recent, secular and Orthodox, including North American Jewish immigrants in the 1970s, then European and USSR Jews in the 1980s. Religious life, from Orthodox to Reform, exists, bolstered by the presence of the Israeli embassy when China opened diplomatic ties in 1992. The Chabad movement has been able to work within the confines of the Chinese government to provide some religious school, a mikveh, and a ritual slaughterer who flies in every three months from South Africa.

The Hong Kong Jewish community is 5,000-strong, but also very transient. A Jewish Community Center, opened in 1995, serves as a hub; there are also Orthodox and Reform synagogues, a Chabad presence, and two Sephardic organizations, mostly comprised of Israelis.

Although most of the Jewish population now lives in Shanghai, there is a Jewish museum to commemorate the history in Kaifeng. Tel Aviv University established an Israel Studies Center at Jiao Tong University last year, and just last month Harbin re-opened one of it’s synagogues (no longer to be used as such, but boasting religious architectural design,) as seen in the image above.

Kenya
Jews first came to Kenya in the early 20th century, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, when British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain offered part of the territory to Zionists as a possible home. Although controversial and ultimately rejected by the Seventh Zionist Congress, somewhere around 20 Jewish families moved to Nairobi and built a synagogue around 1913. More followed after the Shoah, swelling to 150 families in 1945.

Two years later the British set up a detention camp in Gilgil for Jewish Palestinian underground organizations, and the Kenyan Jewish community worked to improve their living conditions. The Jewish community reached a peak of 165 families in 1957; a new synagogue was built in 1955, and later the president of the Board for Kenya Jewry was elected mayor of Nairobi.

Today, approximately 400 Jews live in Kenya, mostly in Kenya’s capital city. Regular Shabbat and holiday services are held in the one national synagogue, the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation. (Website in English.) The majority of the Jewish community is Orthodox, and the community is led by an envoy for the Chabad movement. Kosher food is imported, but a community center hosts weekly educational and social events. Kenya and Israel also enjoy a diplomatic relationship.

With Kenya as the target of several terrorist attacks in the past few decades, this article chronicles the Westgate incident of 2013 from a Nairobi Jewish perspective.

Previous Festival Coverage on JewishDC

2013 / 2011 / 2010

Second annual WJMF in the Park is fun for kids and adults

A crowd dances to the Michael Winograd’s Klezmer ensemble /photo taken by Rachel Mauro

The 15th Washington Jewish Music Festival is winding down this weekend, hopefully with better weather than we’ve seen these last few days. I’m fortunate enough to have attended on a balmy day last Sunday, which was more important than usual because it was an outdoor event. I dropped in for the last hour of WJMF in the park (Francis Field, to be exact.)

Primarily geared toward children, the event included an inflatable slide and bouncy castle, plus a tented off area of arts and crafts. Musical groups Josh and the Jamtones, The Mama Doni Band, and Michael Winograd’s Klezmer ensemble performed; I was lucky enough to catch the last act. Near the stage, a small but lively crowd danced, and the music carried all the way across the park, bouncing off of nearby buildings. It was pretty cool to hear Jewish music filling up a big, public space in DC. Really made it feel like a cultural pride festival, and it was a fun way to spend the afternoon.

The event was co-sponsored in part by Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, Ohev Sholom, and PJ Library. The Elona Ruth Shaffert Fun, to support WJMF in the park in honor of a former DCJCC employee, is being established.

The festival concludes this Saturday. Click here for more information.

Save a piece of local Jewish culture in Mount Vernon

The 415 M Street mural / photo courtesy of JHSGW

As Jewish American History Month draws to a close, and amidst more distressing news of Jewish communities abroad, I thought this might be a good time to highlight a local effort to save a piece of our religious culture.

The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington has set up a donation page, hoping to raise at least $20,000 to remove and preserve the only known synagogue mural in Washington, DC.

The property at 415 M Street was purchased 100 years ago by the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, an organization, which ultimately grew into the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington. (Full disclosure: I interned two years ago at JHGW, where I organized the archival papers pertaining to local JCCs, starting with YMHA at this address. My favorite artifact was a bound book of brochures and programs from 1918-23).

The property was then sold to the Hebrew Home for the Aged, which now exists as the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington, and Orthodox congregation Shomrei Shabbos, which painted the mural 90 years ago. From there, the property belonged to a couple of churches, and will be converted to condominiums later this summer.

As amazing as it is to consider the varied history of this one house, to say nothing of the rest of DC, it would be a shame for this meaningful staple of Jewish presence in DC to be lost. Please do what you can to donate and/or spread the word! In the mean time, check out this short documentary film about the property by former resident Stephanie Slewka.

Book talks, Panels, Walking Tours and Plays for Jewish American Heritage Month 2014

April 30 commemoration of the Days of Remembrance at the Capitol building/ photo courtesy of USHMM

Today, in honor of the Days of Remembrance for the Holocaust, the Capitol building hosted a memorial ceremony, complete with speeches and a U.S. Infantry presentation of the flags of the liberating divisions. But tomorrow is May, and ergo the eighth year of the commemoration of Jewish American Heritage Month! The official website has been updated with upcoming events at venues such as the National Gallery of Art, the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington is teaming up with two of these organizations to present events:

For hyper-local history, sign up for the May 4 Walking tour of Arlington Cemetery, or meet up with young adults from DCJCC’s EntryPoint DC for a downtown walking tour of Chinatown. Only a few spots left!

If you’re free tomorrow evening, the Foundation for Jewish Studies and Washington Hebrew Congregation are co-hosting Beyond the Battlefield: The Legacy of the Civil War for America’s Jews with historian/author Adam Mendelsohn.

And finally, Arena Stage presents the world premiere of Camp David, a historical drama about the meeting for Middle East peace with world leaders Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. JHSGW is offering a discount on ticket prices; click here for more! The play continues until May 4.

Past JAHM coverage on JewishDC: 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009.

“Regina” Uses Archival Footage to Document the Life of a German Female Rabbi from WWII

Director Diana Groo and Executive Producer George Weisz in conversation with WJFF Director Ilya Tovbis / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

On Thursday, March 6, I attended the screening of the documentary, “Regina” at AFI Silver Theatre as part of the 24th Washington, DC Jewish Film Festival. Director Diana Groo and Executive Producer George Weisz were on hand to answer some questions after the event.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this evocative, heavily-packed one-hour film is the use of archival footage to tell the story. When it came to Regina Jonas (1902-1944) herself, Groo only had one surviving photograph for visual purposes. Over the course of several years, she found footage from early 20th century Berlin that fit the storyline she created with Regina’s personal papers and testimony from survivors who knew her. These survivors had passed on by the time the movie was made, so the film never broke away from historical clips.

Much of the footage featured a young woman in appropriate settings, and with the addition of period music and other audio components to cover the largely silent movie clips, I could suspend my disbelief to at least acknowledge that this could be Regina’s life. Maybe I’m biased by my library/archives background, but what an awesome, creative use of primary source material. Groo’s hard work certainly paid off.

Regina Jonas was born Orthodox in Berlin before the accepted ordination of female rabbis, even in the “reformed” movement that was gaining traction in Europe and the Americas. But her father encouraged her to study, and she came to believe that nothing in tradition barred women from holding the title. In the ‘20s she attended a liberal college for Jewish studies, and after fighting years of backlash, she was ordained as a rabbi and ultimately even allowed to preach from the pulpit as the rise of the Third Reich forced Jews, and many male rabbis, out of Germany. She herself was ultimately killed at Auschwitz, but the film made certain not to focus on the Shoah directly, but on “Rabbi Miss Regina Jonas’s” unique influence on the Jewish world.

Weisz was able to recruit his daughter, popular Hollywood actress Rachel Weiscz, to read from Regina’s rabbinical thesis and sermons, which stressed modesty, faith, and dedication to the less fortunate. Groo recruited her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor living in Hungary, to read excerpts from the survivor testimonies. There’s also a version in Hungarian, where the film opened last year before winning the Lia Award for Jewish Experience at the 2013 Jerusalem Film Festival. Groo and Weisz recently signed a contract for wider U.S. distribution of the movie, as well as a DVD in the future; I’m definitely keeping an eye out for it!

The Washington Jewish Film Festival ends tomorrow. Click here for the remaining schedule. Check out my previous WJFF coverage of “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish,” “Love During Wartime,” “Judios en el espacio” and “La Cámera Obscura.”

Modern-Day Learning at Adas Israel’s MakomDC

Several months ago, shortly after High Holidays, in fact, Adas Israel launched a new series of innovative learning programs, largely for adults, in their renovated beit midrash (study center.) These monthly programs revolve around a theme, and include lectures, panels, screenings and more in what they hope will be more of a 21st century, “coffee house” environment. This month’s theme was justice, and I figured it was time to review some events.

“Justice” is a rather versatile subject and Adas embraced many aspects—from Rabbi Steinlauf’s exploration of the mitzvah of tzedakah to the reading of a play on interfaith conversations. In keeping with the 21st century gestalt, I decided to zero in on two events that were about including marginalized groups in the modern Jewish community—LGBT and people with disabilities.

Studying Jewish religious texts through “a different lens,” as presented on our handout / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Dr. Jay Michaelson, who recently published the book God vs Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, was the keynote speaker on Tuesday, Feb. 4, who sat down with Rabbis Steinlauf and Holtzblatt to discuss progressive advances in the Conservative Jewish community, issues LGBT people face when approaching Jewish communal life, and even a thoughtful, broad-minded stance on the issues facing Orthodox groups.

My favorite part was breaking off into traditional Jewish study groups of 2-3 called “chevruta” where we provided with biblical verses about gender, specifically as it applies to the patriarch, Jacob. We also had access to quotes from scholarly thought on these passages, ranging from the modern to a surprisingly homoerotic interpretation in the Zohar of Jacob wrestling with the angel. Our concluding group discussion touched upon how ideas of gender and sexuality are intertwined, among other things. Certainly more useful for a longer, more in depth series of study sessions, but the evening was a great way to get our feet wet! The event was presented in partnership with Bet Mishpachah, Nice Jewish Boys DC and Nice Jewish Girls DC.

On the Shabbat of Feb. 22, I attended a more insular event on making the synagogue and community more accessible to people of varying disabilities. Rabbi Feinberg officiated over a panel of five congregants advocating for various physical and intellectual issues, plus the director of the Interfaith Initiative of the American Association of People with Disabilities. It was a good chance for this smaller cache of members to take stock of what they as a group had accomplished and what they had left to do, broadly speaking. I enjoyed getting the chance to hear from a diverse group of people about their experiences in the Jewish community at large, and their hopes for Adas specifically.

Justice month wraps up with another biblical class this Wednesday, Feb. 26, about divine justice, in conjunction with the Foundation of Jewish Studies. Next week brings a new month and a new theme: Israel. Check out the programming here!

The Afro-Semitic Experience group plays fusion jazz for charity at Adas Israel

The Afro-Semitic Experience performs enthusiastically at Adas Israel/ photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Happy MLK weekend! How have you been celebrating the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

I’ve been very fortunate—Sunday afternoon I attended a concert by the The Afro-Semitic Experience. They were an ethnically diverse group of musicians sponsored by religiously diverse institutions—Adas Israel and the People’s United Church of Christ. All proceeds from the concert went to the local interfaith charity, So Others Might Eat (SOME).

The seats on the first level of the Charles E. Smith Sanctuary filled up as people listened to a large variety of songs—ranging from middle-century jazz adaptations to soulful church inspired music to frenetic klezmer. My favorite might have been the spirited rendition of a Passover favorite, Eliahu, when Jews call for the prophet, Elijah, to join the seder for some wine. At one point in the hour and a half-long concert, we even got up, joined hands and danced around the synagogue.

One thing that really stuck out to me was how so many of these songs were imbued with the belief in a higher purpose, as personified by “the Creator.” It was a very uplifting and powerful message, both about how to come out of the other side of suffering and have faith in your life’s path. It was equally as moving to come together as peoples from different belief systems and realize that we hold a lot of universal truths in common.

The Afro-Semitic Experience concert followed a sermon Sunday morning at the People’s United Church of Christ, and a Saturday afternoon panel on hunger at Adas Israel. Speakers included Father John Adams of SOME, Alexandra Ashbrook of D.C. Hunger Solutions and Debi Wilogren of The Washington Post.

Although most communal MLK charity events for tomorrow are sold out, including at the DCJCC and Yachad, if you’re still looking for a way to give back, check out Sixth & I, which will be serving breakfast at SOME this Thursday!