Theater J Returns, Post-Pandemic, with a One-Woman Show on Dr. Ruth!

image courtesy of Theater J

Theater J is open for business for the first time since 2019!  But because we still live in uncertain times, the org graciously offered a streaming ticket option for their first production, Becoming Dr. Ruth, which ended on the 24th.  I was debating seeing the performance in person for the cast talkback session, but I caught a cold around that time anyway so it didn’t work out.  I figured I’d take advantage of a taped performance instead!

So I thought I’d first give my props to Richard Stucker, for filming.  The audio came out great, and there were closed captions!  Some of the performance involved projecting images onto the backdrop, and I think those always look better in person.  There’s only so much one can do.

The show centers on the life of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, famed sex therapist and Holocaust survivor.  It was written by Mark St. Germain, starring Naomi Jacobson and directed by Holly Twyford.  The two women will be teaching classes at the J later in the year.

I’m not an actor but I recognize the difficulty of a one-person show, where there aren’t any other people off of which to play.  Unsurprisingly, this narrative helped that problem by breaking the fourth wall, and using the audience as “company” for Dr. Ruth to chat with.  The setting was June 9, 1997, in the character’s apartment in New York, as she was packing up to move after her husband’s death.

Dr. Ruth walked around, chatting amicably about her life, with the occasional phone call acting as a topic transition in certain places.  It didn’t feel awkward, though there were certainly bits, like when Dr. Ruth took out her radio equipment and answered a few calls from her old show, that could only happen in a dramatic environment.  I’d say the sole area where I had trouble suspending my disbelief was in Jacobson playing a much-professed short person.  😛  As a short person myself (though not quite as diminutive as Dr. Ruth!), maybe I’m a bit too sensitive.

The narrative, in fact, was a bit of therapy for the character; recalling her past was an exercise in analyzing why she wanted to move, and if it was the right decision in the end.  The backdrop was a bunch of packed boxes, which Dr. Ruth could open and grab props as they came up (also adding to the idea of clutter when trying to consolidate possessions.)  My favorite part was that some of the boxes opened into miniature sets of the places where Dr. Ruth had lived in Germany, Switzerland, Israel and France. Was a nice way to imagine her life beyond the scope of the theater walls.

“I didn’t want to do the play on a realistic set—I wanted the story to reflect an inward journey,” Jacobson wrote in 2018, in an essay included in the 2021 program.  “I didn’t want to be confined to an imitation; it was more important to me to channel her essence.”  Jacobson—and St. Germain through the writing—toed that line with finesse.  The character had to encompass both Dr. Ruth’s cheerful, and perhaps radical for the time, sex advice, as well as the trauma of losing her family to the Holocaust.  It’s a performance that literally made me laugh and cry.

Plus, it ended with the image of Dr. Ruth picking a prop that tied her back to her lost family.  Jacobson thanked the audience in the end for supporting the reviving theater and for being “the best acting partners.”  It felt like a return to life for everyone.

Theater J’s 2021-2022 program continues, with Tuesdays with Morrie opening on November 10.  In person and streaming tickets are available through the link.

Check out more of my past theater coverage through my “books, plays, movies and music” tab!

High Holidays Highlights: 5782!

The outdoor HaMakom tent spans the length of the parking lot! / picture courtesy of Adas Israel

It’s already Sukkot, but before we get too deep into the remaining fall holidays, here are my thoughts on celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in year 2 of covid!

Things had progressed to the point that Adas Israel, at least, felt comfortable hosting congregants in person.  But if we wanted any access at all to the property, we’d have to be masked and show proof of our vaccinated status.  Children under 12, by and large, weren’t allowed into the building, and many of the services took place in a huge outdoor tent, pictured here.

And still the option remained to watch all services online, but it was apparent that the clergy took a lot of heart from being able to see congregants in person.  It was one of the most active holiday seasons I remember, with jumping and clapping and bellowing.

Here are some of my other highlights!

  • I went on tashlich with the Adas team for the first time in a few years. I say “Adas team,” but it really was a hodge podge of folks, which could make it easier for someone like me to join in even if I don’t know anybody. I chatted with a couple of people as we made our way to a nearby bridge over Rock Creek. Was a bit of a trek (especially uphill to get back,) which gave it an extra sense of accomplishment. We said a prayer, threw our bread, listened to the guitar and tried not to annoy passing runners and bicyclists. Well, not too much anyway. 😛
  • Another year of covid restrictions made it impossible for the Adas flash choir to officially perform at Rosh Hashanah Day 2, which is our custom. But the cantor sent along an mp3 of this year’s theme song, and encouraged us to sing along and to harmonize our usual parts for “Halleluyah.” I decided to take this to heart, and sang loud and proud from my seat! Afterwards, the cantor and Rabbi Alexander kvelled a bit, calling out the flash choir generally and hoping for a return to normal next year.
  • And another moment of song: on Yom Kippur I was out in the HaMakom tent when a rainstorm started. It was clamoring on the tarp and rivulets of water were swelling under our feet. We were singing a call and response piyyut, and in response to nature’s call, we got more and more energized. The rain thrummed, and we raised our bodies and voices! There was something so visceral about all of this; we’d been invoking ancient Temple worship all day, as per holiday custom, and now our environs were bringing us closer to that state of being. Granted, a little later the thunder started, and we packed up our electronics and went inside. And I found myself grateful instead for modern Judaism’s inclusion of air conditioning. 😛

What were your favorite experiences of High Holidays 5782?  Feel free to share in the comments!

Sukkot runs until Monday September 27th, followed by Simchat Torah on the 28th-29th! Check out what local synagogues are up to by clicking here.

DC High Holidays Classes and Events 5782

graphic courtesy of Clipart Zone

L’shanah tovah! A new year (really?) will be upon us in under a month—and with that, my favorite holiday. Bring on the apples and honey!

Alas, Covid-19 continues to rear its ugly head over everyone, albeit less intrusively than last year.  Events are happening in person, though JTA recently published this article to assess the safety of High Holidays.  JConnect’s list of streaming options remains active.

But I thought I’d take a moment, like in years past, to specifically highlight events leading up to and occurring within the High Holidays. Links will lead you to access points online! Or in-person locations with social distancing rules. Feel free to leave others in the comments.

Saturday, August 28

A Soulful Selichot
8:30 pm, Bender JCC

Wednesday, September 1

Inclusion High Holidays Program
7:30 pm, EDJCC

A Very Israeli Rosh Hashanah with Chef Michael Solomonov and New York Times Best-Selling Cookbook Author Adeena Sussman
8 pm, Jewish Federation of Greater Washington

Monday, September 6-Thursday, September 30

High Holidays Scavenger Hunt
All day, EDCJCC

Tuesday, September 7

Apples and Honey
10 am, Bender JCC

Friday, September 10

Shabbat: Exhale
7 pm, Sixth & I

Sunday, September 12

Day of Awesome
9:30 am, EDCJCC

Thursday, September 16

I Am Sorry Day
10 am, Bender JCC

Yom Kippur Mindfulness Hike
1 pm, Rock Creek Park

“NO FEAR: A Rally in Solidarity with the Jewish People” Convened on Capitol Hill

On U.S. Independence Day, I watched the Capitol Fourth program on PBS and cringed at the crowds that gathered in front of the jumbotrons.  A week later, on Sunday July 11, I was among the few thousand people who attended the “NO FEAR” rally meant to stand against antisemitism.  And I didn’t even have my mask on the entire time! :/

JTA already covered how some leftist groups declined to co-sponsor the rally, given disagreements with the organizers over the Israeli content.  In their recap of the event, they noted the center to right-wing leanings of many speakers, and a crowd that was quick to boo progressives.

I attended the rally as an observer, and in fact stayed further away from the central crowd in front of the podium most times.  So the cheers, boos and etc felt muted to me.  In the wings (and under the shade), most participants seemed to use this event as a social call with one another. 

There was a handful of anti-Zionist protestors and police in the wings, but it was a largely peaceful event.  Some of the speakers spoke plaintively and openly about their violent experiences with antisemitism.  Others veered into a pro-Israel rallying cry, which in the spirit of these events was a largely over-simplified take on the issues.  Still, others made sure to call out antisemitism on both the left and the right (Ilhan Omar AND Marjorie Taylor Greene), praise the Biden administration (one of his representatives gave a speech), and reiterate that criticism of “some” Israeli policy and pro-Palestinian viewpoints were valid.

You can watch the entire event, featuring speeches from such folks as Meghan McCain, Republican Jewish Coalition leader Norm Coleman, Jewish Democratic Council of America leader Ron Klein, stabbing assault victim Rabbi Shlomo Noginski, Deputy Assistant to President Biden Erika Moritsugu, and Elisha Wiesel, by clicking here!  And you can check out my photo album of favorite protest signs, flags and etc. below.

A Novel Debut, an Adas Class and More for 2021 DC Jewish Pride!

Picking up my copy of “Closer to Fine” at Lost City Books! /picture taken by Rachel Mauro

I’m so feklempt that I finally had the chance to engage with newish DC bookstore, Lost City Books, thanks to the Jewish and queer communities!  On June 1, author Jodi Rosenfeld, GLOE member Tamar Gasko and bookseller Shady Rose convened on Zoom to discuss Rosenfeld’s debut novel, Closer to Fine. It was named after a quintessential, ‘90s and queer Indigo Girls song you can listen to here!

Though the book has universal themes, like learning acceptance, navigating relationships and generational gaps, the ‘90s cast certain elements in a distinctive light.  The queer community, such as it was back then, solely catered to gay men, lesbians and bisexuals, and everyone had to “pick a box,” Rosenfeld said.  Conservative Judaism, the denomination to which Rachel belonged, was changing as well.  Rachel was stunned when her synagogue hired a young, progressive, female rabbi to lead the congregation.  (The conservative movement started ordaining women in 1985.  Three decades later, at Adas, most of the clergy are female!  Anywho.)

It’s the power of a strong story that although many of the situations were stuck in the last century, young, queer readers like Gasko still found it to be relatable.  Throughout the hour they talked about the novel, and the state of Jewish and queer communities from the past through today.  You can hear it for yourself by clicking on the recording here!

***

One week later, on June 8, Adas Israel closed out its 5771 adult learning series, MakomDC, with Dr. Joy Ladin.  Ladin, a poet and English professor and Gottesman Chair at Yeshiva University, talked about reading the bible from a transgender perspective.

I appreciated her broad-minded view of the Torah, noting how rare it is for any human character’s identity to make it onto the page (or scroll.) She referenced Akedah specifically, and how we never get Abraham’s perspective from his identity as a father as he is preparing to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The reason for this broad, distant view, Ladin argues, is so we focus less on the humans and that Gd, who in Gdself is genderless and ergo “queer,” can stay in the frame.

When Ladin looks to “queer” the Torah, she focuses on in-text examples of characters who do not conform to gender and identity expectations.  Our patriarch Isaac’s immediate family is a good example of that.  His two sons, Jacob and Esau, present very different versions of masculinity—Esau is a  burly, hairy, hunter; and Jacob is a more slender shepherd.  Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebecca (who, in and of herself, strikes me as a biblical female character who is most proactive with her own agency,) steals the birthright from the older son, Esau.  To break this social order, Jacob dresses in animal skins while visiting his father, in what some might term an over-performance of masculinity.

Isaac himself is the product of a woman, Sarah, who could be termed a “gender failure” by society’s expectations, in that she is unable to get pregnant for most of her life. When she finally conceives Isaac, at 90 years old, two different female identities—that of young mother and of old woman—come together as one. Isaac’s Hebrew name, Yitzhak, which means “laughter,” may be a nod to the absurdity of the situation. Absurdity, Ladin argues, not unlike transgender and non-binary people trying to fit themselves into a world that often relies on narrow definitions.

There were around 25 people in the Zoom chat, and during one discussion section, someone pointed out how Jacob, much like many transgender people, underwent a transformation and gained a new name.  Jacob wrestled with…someone (most interpret this to be an angel,) and was renamed Israel.  Was an illuminating moment in the discussion, where Dr. Ladin (and later Adas’s Rabbi Aaron Alexander,) shared with us the joy in uncovering new layers of Judaism’s holy texts.

The month continues with more local programming.  You can join GLOE, Bet Mishpachah and the community this Friday at Pride Shabbat (and/or for a pre-Shabbat virtual cocktail mixer,) drag bingo and games next Tuesday, and a community service option for DC’s LGBTQ+ nonprofit, Casa Ruby, on Sunday, June 20.

The Capital Jewish Museum recently highlighted collections from David M. Green, a DC Jew and gay activist who died of AIDS complications in 1989, z”l.  They encourage the local, queer community to donate archival materials in order for the museum “to reflect the community we represent.”

Happy Pride!

The JxJ Festival Resumes Course in 2021, with Mix of Live and Virtual Events

JxJ brings back the in-person events! / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Having vanquished—with thanks to the vaccine roll out—the scourge of coronavirus, JxJ almost fell victim to a new villain: the weather!

Two of it’s eleven outdoor events in fact had to be postponed.  (Luckily, there were plenty more talks and screenings online this last week of May.)  But on the afternoon of the final day of the festival, Sun May 30, Yiddishist Miriam Isaacs and virtuoso Vladimir Fridman dutifully turned up at the Bender JCC in Rockville, for an hour of Yiddish music.  At the end of the performance, Isaacs pointed out that several of the songs in fact referenced inclement weather.  Although the skies remained overcast, no rain fell.

“For the best experience, bring your own beach chairs and/or picnic baskets!” JxJ extolled us.  A handful of the 20-30 socially distant audience members brought their own chairs, and the Bender JCC provided seating as well.  Thankfully the concert was held on asphalt and not in the grass, which was likely wet from the weekend.  I brought and ate some Panera, feeling conspicuous, though I believe someone behind me also had food on a picnic table.

Songs ranged from Czarist Russia to Second Ave New York, with Isaacs providing some context before Fridman performed on guitar and vocals.  The day was chilly enough that some of us who brought blankets used them over our legs.  But nothing could quell the excitement of getting to attend an event in person again.  It almost felt like the last time I braved the world for JewishDC was when my ancestors were coming over from the old country!  (Or, er, February of last year. :P)  Taking in the age of most audience members I assume we were all vaxxed, and only one woman was wearing a mask.

Another woman danced, and we collectively tried a little bit of tepid call and response with the performers.  In all honesty, the hour just kinda washed over me, and I think most people were mostly basking in the forgotten feeling of in-person entertainment.  Ilya Tovbis, JxJ’s Artistic and Managing Director, said that the Dupont-based Edlavitch JCC should be fully open in September!  Exciting news!

For more JxJ coverage, check out my inaugural post from 2019!

2021: Another Virtual Year for Jewish American Heritage Month

National Museum of American Jewish History / picture courtesy of Wikipedia

May is just around the corner, and though Covid is still with us, National Jewish American Heritage Month is on!

In 2021, NJAHM is being led by the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, Pa. One might ask: then what does this topic have to do with Jews in DC? Well, for one thing, everything’s still virtual. 😛 So we can all take part in this month of celebrations!

One of the big streaming events is definitely DC based: U.S. Rep’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Brenda Lawrence are convening Monday May 10 at 1 pm to discuss Black-Jewish relations in America.

Others include lessons about the Soviet Jewry movement, stories of the Asian American Jewish experience and the first community-based inductee into the Ed Snider Only in America® Gallery/Hall of Fame.

From the website:

The month will showcase contemporary stories of communities transcending difference to come together in mutual support and solidarity and amplify diverse voices within the Jewish community. JAHM will work to fight not only explicit antisemitism, but also its insidious influences and discrimination against people of all races, religions, and walks of life.

If you’re looking for local events, the Capitol Jewish Museum is hosting a virtual tour on Tuesday, May 11!  Find out more details here.

Also, it’s not directly NJAHM-related, but the 2021 JxJ Film, Music and Art Festival is convening for the last week of the month…and it includes some in person, outdoor events!  Check back for some coverage on this blog!

Also, check out my past coverage of Jewish American Heritage Month under the “Annual Events” tab.

Sixth & I Zoom Classes, Fresh Seder Ideas, Second Passover of Covid-19!

Rabbi Shira starts off the Seder Says class on Zoom / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

And Gd willing, it will be the last!

Had to dust off a few gears in order to write this post. Barring the (in-person!) Adas Israel Purim funhouse, I haven’t been attending many happenings in the Jewish DC community. It’s been months since I’ve “gone” to any Zoom events, like at all! But when Sixth & I touted a class on sprucing up Passover Seder conversation, which took place a little over a week ago, I couldn’t resist.

It was robust and fun, as well as being informative.  The five main presenters, as moderated by Senior Rabbi Shira Stutman, were obviously part of a tight-knit group with several of the 30ish people in attendance.  Conversation bloomed through the video and in the chat.  Certainly one of the most intrinsic examples I’ve found of community continuing to proliferate in this pandemically mandated virtual space.  And I gotta say: as much as I appreciated the presenter who had the parting of the Red Sea as his Zoom background, my heart went pitter patter over another one whose cats were present and lounging in a cat tree. 😛

These five speakers, aided by their Power Point presentations, were compelling and well-spoken, too.  They covered such topics as The Four Questions (and the always-active argument about what those four children represent,) the song “Dayenu” (and what is enough, or is it enough, in the Passover story and in our current reality,) and the phrase “L’shana haba’ah Yerushalayim,” or “next year in Jerusalem” (and how to reconcile that with complicated feelings about the modern state of Israel, or if the phrase has to be literal at all.) 

The topic that has stuck in my mind the most regards violence in the Passover story. Specifically, this discussion started by describing the Shfoch Hamatcha prayer. This is traditionally recited before opening the door to Elijah the Prophet near the end of the Seder (that being one of my favorite parts because the melody is so pretty. And because opening the door and singing out to the world reminds me that Jews are doing this everywhere, too.) But anywho, the prayer actually asks for Gd to “pour out thy wrath” on our enemies, eeesh.

My own thoughts gravitated towards the idea of vengeance, which is actually something I’ve been grappling with more when it came to the last majorish Jewish holiday, Purim. Purim is pretty standard when it comes to Jewish history; the Persian version of “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” But we talk less about this fact: once the bad guy, the one who wanted to commit genocide against the Jews, was executed, the people didn’t stop there. Megillat Esther maintains that they went on a killing spree against non-Jews. Vengeance is quite obviously a theme here.

The violence in the Passover story is different.  First of all, these acts performed by Gd (who is totally absent from the Purim story.)  But more importantly, the violence therein can largely be chalked up to self-defense.  Gd closed the Red Sea over the advancing Egyptian army, lest the Israelites be dragged back into bondage.  Then Gd commands said Israelites to not celebrate their deaths, since the Egyptians were still people, after all.

It’s just something I’ve been thinking about, and I’m glad the Seder gives space to grapple with these issues. Purim, in contrast, has a bit of a carnival air, and it can be difficult to take an introspective moment. (In terms of drunkenness, Purim=very drunk, and Passover=slightly buzzed. :P) Anywho, I’m very grateful to the Sixth & I class. Passover is now less than a week away, giving me limited time to perhaps hash out my own talking points on Hagaddot.com for my first Seder night (and second will be spent, virtually, with Adas!)

For DC (and worldwide) mishpacha: also check out the Gather the Jews Passover guide for upcoming events and other ways to commemorate the holiday. Chag sameach, and Next Year Without Covid!

Celebrate Purim in 5781!

graphic courtesy of Vecteezy

Purim starts on February 25, a festive holiday of rejoicing, yet again, in the fact that we (the Jews) have survived a persecution attempt. Huzzah! Though not as noticeable to the outside world as, say, Chanukah, it is definitely as fun—allowing people of all ages to dress up, eat special sweets, and wave noisemakers called groggers as the Megillah (book of Esther) is read out enthusiastically.

You don’t have to wait until the 14th of Adar to participate in this holiday. Enjoy these local offerings of Purim-related festivities leading up to and encompassing this holiday event! It’s a strange, almost nostalgic year, as Purim 2020/5780 was the last Jewish holiday before coronavirus shut down everything in the U.S. But as you can see below we’re still going strong–in person or otherwise! Chag sameach.

*note: GatherTheJews already captured a lot of events, and other things, on their annual Purim guide! Here’s just a few more.

Sunday, February 21

Purim Carnivirtual
A collaboration between the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, PJ Library, and various local synagogues and other Jewish centers. Family-centric with games and other entertainment!

Sing Along with the Hazzan for Purim
At Agudas Achim

Monday, February 22

EDCJCC’s offerings for the kids include Bim Bom Purim Bags and a holiday story time! Older folks can try their hand at hamentaschen making with Baked by Yael.

Tuesday, February 23

Shalom Chaverim: Purim Edition
With EDJCC: Families can virtually join in with making wearable art like crowns and necklaces perfect for a Purim parade!

Thursday, February 25

2000s Purim Power Happy Hour
EntryPointDC celebrating culture from 20 years ago before you go back way further for the megillah reading. 😛

Drag Queen Esther-Fest: A Purim Maskerade
Joint between GLOE and Bet Mishpachah. Virtual fun with the “Dragillah,” local celebs, and raising funds for LGBTQ causes.

Purim Puppet Production
Full Purim schedule for Tikvat Israel.

Temple Shalom is featuring a Tot Purim and an all-ages affair.

Manna Food Drive
At B’nai Israel.

Purim Celebration
Full schedule, for Hill Havurah.

Esther: A Persian Musical
Look at the artwork and you can guess what this Kol Ami Purim spiel took as inspiration! 😛

Sunday, February 28

A couple of post-holiday carnivals, courtesy of Washington Hebrew and Temple Shalom!

Commemorate MLK Weekend 2021 and Tu B’Shevat 5781 in DC!

image courtesy of allfree-clipart.com

Under the circumstances, it feels strange to write “happy new year.” 2021 has gotten off to a rocky start, especially in DC. I’ve personally felt indebted to Rabbi Aaron Alexander and Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, of Adas Israel, who checked in on Facebook Live with messages about loving support and the true meaning of teshuva (repentance.)

Hopeful things are on the horizon, at least in terms of upcoming holidays. But before I go there, allow me to step back into the anomaly that was 2020. Here are some stats! According to WordPress, JewishDC got 559 views and 457 visitors, with the largest numbers coming from the US, Germany, Canada, Finland, India, the UK and Israel. My most popular post of the year was my perennial on The Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Most years, this festival would be taking place on the National Mall, but this year the Smithsonian thought up the virtual Beyond the Mall. They specifically highlighted the United Arab Emirates and Brazil, and I stepped in with the Jewish histories of those two countries.

Thanks so much for your support, everyone, and here’s to hoping for a fruitful secular new year, sooner or later! Starting here with some holidays and community service.

The Jewish community commemorates two significant holidays—one religious and one secular—in January. MLK Weekend takes place this weekend, from Jan 16-18. Tu B’Shevat occurs between Jan 27 and 28. Check out ways to get involved with the local community! Note: some events may be sold out.

Please feel free to add more events in the comments.

MLK Weekend

  • Sixth & I’s Visions of Freedom and Justice. In conjunction with Turner Memorial AME Church. Includes their annual focus on the relationship between Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Also sermons and singing. More uniquely this year, includes virtual travel to Philadelphia and places of historical significance to Blacks and Jews.
  • Washington Hebrew Congregation’s MLK Shabbat Service. In conjunction with faith leaders from about two dozen partner churches and mosques, featuring capstone speaker Jelani Cobb. Cobb, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is known for his work on racial justice, and has published the book, The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.
  • Adas Israel’s 2021 Weekend. Including a Friday night musical Shabbat service with virtual breakout sessions about the congregation’s social action projects. Saturday morning will feature guests Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky and Reverend Brandon Harris, as well as Roderick Giles & Grace Gospel Choir. On Sunday congregants are invited to join the People’s Church virtual service. And on Monday it’s Adas @ Home: cooking for the Hesed community, as well as the online debut of the Soul to Soul concert for African American and Jewish music.
  • Also check out the EDCJCC’s virtual volunteering option of knitting for the homeless! Plus, their Holiday Story Time Series for MLK Day, aimed at kids from 1-6 years old.

Tu B’Shevat