Novelist Panels at the Washington, DC Jewish Literary Festival

Jessamyn Hope, Jami Attenberg and Mary Morris in conversation / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

I had a moment on Monday, Oct 26, when I realized I’d read a novel a piece from three of the four writers on stage. This whole whipping my reading life into shape has been good for me. As much as I enjoy finding new voices and books, there’s something exhilarating about feeling in with the literary “in” crowd.

The event in question, Intrepid Time Travelers held at the DCJCC, featured Michelle Brafman in conversation with Mary Morris, Jami Attenberg and Jessamyn Hope. Their three latest novels, The Jazz Place, Saint Mazie and Safekeeping span centuries and continents, from mid-20th-century Chicago, to New York City a few decades earlier, to an Israeli kibbutz in 1994 and the Holy Roman Empire in the 14th century. Much of their conversation centered on balancing research with compelling narrative, general inspiration, and an intriguingly common thread throughout the three novels involving music and sound.

The Monday previous, Oct 19, I headed to the Folger Shakespeare Library for a panel called Replacement Lives. Officially put on by PEN/Faulkner, this evening featured Jewish former-Soviet émigrés, David Bezmozgis, Boris Fishman and Lara Vapnyar in conversation with Olga Grushin. I’d previously read Vapnyar’s short story collection, There Are Jews In My House, which she referenced briefly, particularly the titular story where she explored the murky reality of a jealous 1940s woman hiding her Jewish neighbors from the Nazis. She also admitted to the anachronism of having someone do up a zipper before they were invented. :P

The three authors read from their works either recently or soon-to-be published, and then they discussed everything from personal identity to the ways that people stand up for political ideologies in various parts of the world. At one point, Bezmozgis said that if he ever became a U.S. president he’d reinstate the draft so that everyone would have some “skin in the game;” Vapnyar countered that she wouldn’t vote for him. :P

The truly amazing thing about fiction is how many realities it can emcompass—spanning issues and characters ranging across time, geography and ideology. I read fiction, in part, to see how people outside of myself view the world. If you’re interested in novelists at the DC Jewish Literary Festival, there’s still time to get tickets to see Shalom Auslander, also a recent Showtime showrunner, tomorrow at 7:30 for the closing night. Happy reading!

Jews Ring in 5776 Amidst DC Excitement!

Traditional high holidays regalia / photo courtesy of

Shana tova and g’mar chatima tova! These last few days might go down in local history as the first visit by Pope Francis, but the 10th of Tishrei is always the holiest day of the year for us Jews. :P Hope you had a meaningful fast, and a good Rosh Hashanah as well.

Here are some of my highlights:

  • I went to Adas Israel as usual, and got to see new clergy member, Rabbi Aaron Alexander, in action. He gave a moving sermon on Rosh Hashanah about ways, concerning Gd and humanity, that we can stop “being serious about taking ourselves seriously” and actually take ourselves seriously.
  • The “Return Again” Kol Nidre service, which attracts thousands of people to pray on the steps of the synagogue, wasn’t rained out or prey to technical difficulties! :P We also sang “Adon Olam” to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.”
  • Supreme Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke with Judge David Tatel for the Yom Kippur afternoon discussion. I really appreciated her measured, researched answers to the questions he posed; she didn’t seem like she just liked to hear herself talk, and she had a sense of humor, too. Kind of hearkens back to the first point. :P

Next week, the autumn Jewish holidays-palooza continues on with Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Check out the GatherTheJews calendar for some events!

The DCJCC Jewish Literary Festival is scheduled this year for October 18-28. It features famous worldwide Jewish writers such as Etgar Keret, Alan Dershowitz and Shalom Auslander, to a local writers fair. Personally, I have my eye on two panels–Eastern Europeans and women writing in the 21st century. Hope to see you there!

New Page at JewishDC!

New website header!

Summer time tends to be a slower time, so I thought why not do a little revamping of JewishDC? I’ve been blogging for several years now, and some of my favorite posts are cyclical; the various festivals and etc that mark the local Jewish calendar. I’ve compiled and grouped all of my writings over at the annual events page. Click for more details!

And as always, via social media, check out the “Tweets from the Community” and the JewishDC Facebook page, over in the sidebar. And in terms of forward thinking, check out this high holiday guide from GatherTheJews!

Thanks so much for being such great readers. I hope you enjoy the new feature.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Culture in Unusual Places

1870 synagogue in Lima, Peru / photo courtesy of

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 2015 they’ve been focusing on Peru.

Doubtless the Festival has done a great job in covering many aspects of this nation. 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.


In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue…and Jews were officially expelled from Spain, making the “new world” look like a good possibility. In fact, many “conversos” were on board the Spanish ships, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. These people were mostly forcibly converted to Catholicism, though many still secretly practiced Judaism. Latin America promised economic prosperity and the chance to get away from the Inquisition…so they thought. In fact Spain started limiting “conversos” emigration to “the new world,” though the Portuguese didn’t have as many restrictions, so a number of them moved into Spanish territories like Peru. For more information on “conversos,” I made a LibGuide when I was in Library School.

Jews had to live in hiding in Peru, and many Latin American countries, until the Enlightenment of the 19th century. But the community was quite small and intermarried, and much of the establishment they set up passed to new Jewish immigrants, like central European merchants whose descendants make up the bulk of the modern day community. In the latter half of the 1800s, North African Jews, also drawn for economic reasons, made their way to this country.

In the 20th century, the reason for Jewish immigration took a turn towards the attempt to escape persecution. Jews from Turkey and Syria came after World War I, expanding the Jewish presence to the entire country but eventually moving back to the well-established areas in Lima. This included Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogues, services like homes for the elderly, and a Jewish day school that 80% of kids attend.

The community peaked at 52,000 members in the 1970s, but declined more recently due to socialist governments, neo-Nazi antisemitism, economic hardships, intermarriage, the end of emigration, and immigration to other Latin American countries and Israel. But Peruvian Jews, now numbering around 3,000, continue to own businesses and serve in the government. Former first lady Elaine Karp and former second vice president David Waisman are both members of the tribe.

As of late, indigenous Peruvians (or B’nai Moshe) are starting to turn to Judaism as well. Many see it as the best way to practice the Bible, their ancestors having been converted to Catholicism during the Spanish colonial period. Rabbi Mendel Zuber from the U.S. acquired a Bet Din from Israel in the late 20th century to convert a few hundred people to Judaism. Read more about his work and experience here.  Some of these new converts stayed in Peru, but many made aliyah to Israel as well.

For Spanish-language resources, chec out, Judios de Peru on Facebook and Museo de la Communidad Judia del Peru.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival continues until July 5.

Previous Festival Coverage on JewishDC
2014 / 2013 / 2011 / 2010

Local Summertime Events in Jewish Literature

Judy Blume in conversation with NPR’s Linda Holmes at Sixth & I/photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Two nights of author readings and signings bookended my June calendar (ta-da-ching. :P)

On Thursday, June 4, Judy Blume came to Sixth I to talk with NPR’s Linda Holmes about her new, adult novel, In The Unlikely Event. Several weeks later, on Monday, June 29, newly minted Fig Tree Books, which seeks to publish novels, memoirs and more that chronicle the American Jewish experience, brought three of its authors to Kramerbooks for readings, signings, and schmoozing.

These two events were as different as night and day, except that I faced travel problems with both. :P The first was entirely my fault; I completely underestimated the timeframe necessary for a Judy Blume night. Although I arrived in time to hear her speak, I was so near the end of the line that I had to squeeze into the balcony and wait over an hour to get my book signed, missing the chance to sit with my friend, who wisely arrived around 45 minutes before I did.

Jessamyn Hope reads from “Safekeeping” at Kramerbooks /photo taken by Rachel Mauro

I didn’t face the same issues with crowds at the second event; I faced them en route. Monday turned into one of those unfortunate days where the Red Line got majorly backed up; Metro Center was over-teeming with people, and trains were barely getting out. I ended up leaving the station to journey the 1.5-mile distance to the bookstore by foot. It was a lovely day for it (unlike the torrential rain of June 4), except that I arrived about half an hour into the event.

The Judy Blume event, or #BlumesDay, as we were encouraged to refer to it on social media, was co-sponsored by Politics & Prose. We were ushered into the social hall to pick up our books and tickets for signing; Blume autographed almost 600 books that night, and personalized them by name, too. Upstairs, we listened to the ‘50s soundtrack of songs referenced in her new novel, based on true events from when she was a child and three planes mysteriously crashed over the course of weeks in her hometown. Blume talked for around an hour about the process of writing this book, her legacy among generations of primarily female readers who grew up with her, fighting off censorship for her frank discussion of sexuality, and more.

Two of the writers at the June 29 event were first time novelists; Jessamyn Hope with Safekeeping and Jonathan Papernick with The Book of Stone. Also in attendance was Alan Cheuse, of NPR’s All Things Considered, who published his sixth novel, Prayers for the Living, with Fig Tree Books. The three authors read from their books, and then fielded questions from the 25-person audience. We may have been small but we were also intimate, getting the chance to talk with the writers after the event. I bought a copy of Hope’s Safekeeping, which she signed for me with a personal message after we gabbed for a few minutes.

This habit of acquiring signed books can err on the expensive side, but it’s quite worth it, too. Summer is a great time to curl up with a good book in good weather, and if you need a break from the DC humidity, Jewish organizations and indie bookstores have a lot of literary events going on. Check them out!

The Epichorus Blends Judeo-Arabic and Area Music at 2015 Washington DC Jewish Music Festival

The Epichorus performs an encore at the DCJCC/ photo taken by Rachel Mauro

New York-based The Epichorus performed to a full auditorium at the DCJCC Washington Jewish Music Festival Wednesday night. Heavy on instrumentals, the group also featured the soulful vocals of Priya Darshini.

Zach Freedman, rabbi at the New Shul in Manhattan and player of the oud and guitar, composed much of the music. Other group members in attendance included Daniel Ori on bass, Megan Gould on violin, Hadar Noiberg on flute and Rich Stein on percussions.

Among the songs they performed for their hour and a half long concert, Freedman had the audience sing along to a rendition of Lecha Dodi, a traditional Jewish piece for welcoming Shabbat, that he composed for his wedding. Other pieces he spun from such religious texts as verses of the Song of Songs and the Jewish blessing after meals. The group also touched on melodies from Syria and Pakistan.

Although beset with very minor technical difficulties, I was very taken with the instrumental harmonies, particularly by the flute and violin in tandem. The musicians all performed with evident, physical passion for their work, which made it all the engrossing and enjoyable.

This program was promoted in part by the Foundation of Jewish Studies. The Washington Jewish Music Festival continues through the weekend; click here for more information.

Lincoln’s Jewish Legacy and Jews in Pa Mining Towns Among Local Lectures for Jewish American Heritage Month

Lincoln’s Jewish podiatrist, Isachar Zacharie / courtesy of Jewish World Review

May heralds in the ninth 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:

The Society is also hosting a challah sale—four loaves for $24 to benefit it’s educational programs with pick up at their offices or free delivery in Penn Quarter. Deadline is May 4; sign up here.

On May 3, the Foundation for Jewish Studies and Congregation Beth El in Bethesda are co-hosting Jews, Protestants and the Secularization of Modern America with historian/professor Dr. David Hollinger.

Please comment with any other area events below!

Past JAHM coverage on JewishDC: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009.