“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!

Stats for Jews in DC and JewishDC!

Happy New Year’s Eve! Alas, this wasn’t exactly the way that I planned to write a December post. I had been hoping to make it to Sixth & I’s millenials panel discussion on the recent Pew Forum survey on Jewish American life moderated by Rabbi Shira Stutman, but bad weather detained me. That being said, I was delighted to learn that the entire panel was videotaped and posted online! You can also find the results of Sixth & I’s informal survey of DC-area millenial Jews.

I hope that this blog, like those results, show that Jewish pride is alive and well in the nation’s capital. I look forward to continue chronicling local events and culture in 2014, a year when I’ll be 100% free of grad school! :D In the meantime, check below for some highlights from 2013. Have a safe and fun holiday!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog. Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,000 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 50 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Thanksgivukkah Events Around the District

A candelabra cross between a menorah and a turkey, available for sale at menurkey.com

Thanksgivukkah, eg the cross between the American Thanksgiving and Jewish Chanukah holidays, comes once every 70,000-plus years, but 5774/2013 happens to be one of those times. Predominately celebrated at home, no doubt, with creative mashup recipes, the local community has also found ways to celebrate this double-heritage miracle publicly. Check it out!

  • This Monday, join NoVa Tribe for a Thanksgivukkah cooking class featuring potato latkes with cranberry applesauce and sour cream, pumpkin gelt trifle, and sweet potato pie sufganiyot donuts. Yum!
  • The DCJCC is hosting a contest for best Thanksgivukkah centerpiece as contributed by members of our community; check out the facebook page to vote for a People’s Choice. Winners of the contest and the people’s choice will be featured in the Washington Jewish Week and in an art exhibition at the Distrikt Bistro Café.
  • Gather The Jews published a list of top Thanksgivukkah videos. Revel in the comedy and wisdom of these two stories being brought together.

Gobble sameach! :P

New Literary Scholarship on Sholem Aleichem at the DCJCC Literary Festival

Professor Jeremy Dauber speaks on his book about famed Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem /photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Columbia University Yiddish literature Professor Jeremy Dauber addressed a packed theater Thursday about his newly-published book, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye. Dauber’s talk was made possible by the Bernard Wexler Fund for Jewish History, which supports an annual lecture at the DCJCC Literary Festival, and was co-sponsored by the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center and Program for Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland, the Program in Judaic Studies at The George Washington University and Yiddish of Greater Washington.

Known in some circles as “the Jewish Mark Twain,” a contemporary of his, Sholem Aleichem, born Sholem Rabinovich in 1859 in what is now the Ukraine, had a literary career that spanned from short stories to novels to plays. Although considered a theatrical failure by the end of his life, his funeral in 1916 was one of the largest ever attended in New York (somewhere between 30 and 250,000 mourners), and of course his Tevye stories live on through the Broadway musical-turned-film adaptation, Fiddler on the Roof.

Dauber centered his talk on 13 points to know about Aleichem the man, ranging in his interest in the Jewish Enlightenment (the Haskalah), socialism and zionism; to his “boom and bust” personality, particularly when it came to business investments; his devotion to family; and more.

Sholem Aleichem has had a long and personal influence over my life, long before I knew it was him, and I was a little girl reacting to Neva Small, who played Chava in the popular 1971 movie. Moved by the daughter who most encapsulated my family’s Jewish experience, I named my childhood cat after her and now write about Jewish interfaith issues in a blog entitled Chava’s Footsteps. Ironically, of all the progressive movement that Aleichem espoused, he stopped short of accepting interfaith marriage. In fact, in the original story, unlike the adaptations, Chava leaves her Gentile husband and returns to her faith and family. Dauber opined that this was Aliechem’s way of giving Tevye, who was often steeped in tragedy, a happy ending after all.

Dauber spoke with an earnest excitement about his work, which made this literary legend, dead for nearly 100 years, feel both alive and more relatably human. In the Q&A session, the professor speculated that Aleichem would have appreciated his work living on in new mediums like Broadway and movies, especially considering that he was a “new media” sorta guy himself, getting published in the expanding Yiddish press and exploring the burgeoning silent film industry. And by the way, yes, Tevye was based on at least one real person, one of whom ultimately banked on his fame when travelers would come to try his dairy products. :P

For more reviews of Dauber’s biography, check out Moment Magazine (full disclosure: I helped copy edit this story), Tablet and an audio interview over at Vox Tablet.

You can read my slightly spoilerish review of the Tevye the Dairyman and Railroad stories here. For more information on the 2013 DCJCC Literary Festival, continuing until Wednesday, click here!

Dinner in the Sukkah at Adas Israel

Ruach Minyan hosts a Shabbat Sukkot dinner at the Adas Israel sukkah / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Chag sameach Sukkot and Shabbat Shalom! Hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday.

It was a full Sukkah Friday night at Adas Israel when I arrived for davening and dinner. Clergy members Rabbi Steinlauf and Cantor Brown led us in a quick Kiddush before the Ruach Minyan took over. We did Kabbalat Shabbat, ate dinner and talked about the holiday prayers.

Participants had a choice between a vegetarian and non meal, and I enjoyed a tender chicken and flavorful rice and kugel. (Let’s not forget the brownie for dessert!) The sukkah, large enough to host a dozen tables, was built by Adas Israel’s Men’s Club and decorated by the Sisterhood and schoolchildren. For someone who lives in an apartment, and therefore doesn’t have her own sukkah, this was truly a cozy community experience! (Though I wish someone had told the flies that the fruit dangling from the thatched roof wasn’t real! :P)

For more Sukkot-related events, check out the Gather the Jews calendar! The yontiff ends on Wednesday.