Author Event at East City Bookshop: Gabrielle Zevin Fictionalizes a Lewinsky-like Scandal in YOUNG JANE YOUNG

Gabrielle Zevin holds up her novel at an East City Bookshop reading / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

As we’re gearing up for High Holidays (I had to dash to this event right after an Adas Israel flash choir rehearsal myself) author Gabrielle Zevin spoke to a dozen or so people at East City Bookshop about her book that reflects on the lives of women.

The event for Young Jane Young started at 4 pm yesterday afternoon at the Capitol Hill indie bookstore, with Zevin first reading some prepared remarks and novel excerpts, and then turning it over to some enthusiastic questions and book signings.

Surely politics makes a good subject for her first book event in DC. :p. Zevin talked about being inspired to write this novel while witnessing responses to Hilary Clinton during the primaries; she read her final proofs around Election Day. The book more or less centers around the character of Aviva Grossman, who like Monica Lewinsky, is an intern who ends up sleeping with her powerful boss. Zevin calls these events a “sexist scandal” rather than a “sex scandal,” for the way that these mistakes can end up ruining the lives of women, who are blamed for being instigators.

Twenty years ago, Zevin claimed, she followed suit by blaming Lewinsky and believing the popular narrative that a young intern could seduce the powerful and charismatic former president of the U.S., Bill Clinton. She went through events in her own life when she brushed up against sexism, like when she was running for office in grade school and someone called her a “dyke” for wearing a suit, just like all of the boys did. But it was only when her previous novels were labeled as the diminutive “women’s fiction,” (to which there is no male counterpart) did she start calling herself a feminist.

I’m not solely covering this event here because of its feminist issues, of course; the characters in the novel are also largely Jewish. It’s told from several perspectives, featuring ladies of all ages, and in Aviva’s mother’s section, the woman has to endure a male of the tribe kvetching about how Aviva is “a little zaftig” and otherwise a disgrace to the Jewish people. Aviva, like her author, grew up in Boca Raton, Fla., an area so heavily populated by Jews that Zevin claims it took her until young adulthood to realize how small an American minority she belonged to.

Obviously sexism isn’t just a Jewish problem, but I’m looking forward to reading the book with a particular eye to how it affects part of our community. And for a locally written review, check out the double print/video one by Ron Charles, editor of The Washington Post’s Book World, by clicking here!

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DC High Holiday Classes and Events 5778

Apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah/ image courtesy of wikipedia

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

For tickets, J-Connect has in depth detail concerning fees, schedules and more for DC and area MD and VA synagogues. Gather DC focuses more specifically on young adults, and has links to services and other activities to help this cohort connect.

Washington also offers classes and events to inform you and get you in the spirit of high holidays! I’ve gathered up a few offerings from Sixth & I and the Edlavitch DCJCC, JCCNV and the Bender JCC. Please leave others in the comments!


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Wednesday, September 6
The Beauty of Sephardic High Holidays, 7:30 pm, Sixth & I
https://www.sixthandi.org/event/16737/

Thursday, September 7 and 14
Ten Steps Toward Teshuvah, 7:45 pm, Sixth & I
https://www.sixthandi.org/event/ten-steps-toward-teshuva/

Sunday, September 10
Repentance, Forgiveness, Personal Change: Entering the Days of Awe with Mechon Hadar, 2 pm, EDCJCC
http://thejdc.convio.net/site/Calendar/1163557695?view=Detail&id=153547

Sunday, September 10
Fall into the Holidays, 2 pm, JCCNV
http://www.jccnv.org/index.php?src=events&srctype=detail&category=Upcoming%20Events&refno=187939

Monday, September 11
Go Creative for the Jewish New Year!, 2 pm, JCCNV
http://www.jccnv.org/index.php?src=events&srctype=detail&category=Adults&refno=187988

Tuesday, September 12
High Holiday Sampler featuring Joan Nathan and her new cookbook, King Solomon’s Table, 7 pm, Bender JCC.
http://www.benderjccgw.org/event/high-holiday-sampler/

Wednesday, September 13 and 27
Take on Yom Kippur, 6 pm, Sixth & I
https://www.sixthandi.org/event/take-yom-kippur/

Sunday, September 17
Community Apple Picking, 1 pm, JCCNV
http://www.jccnv.org/index.php?src=events&srctype=detail&category=Upcoming%20Events&refno=187945

Wednesday, September 20 (Erev Rosh Hashanah)
Day of Awe-Some: Exploring Rosh Hashanah, 4 pm, EDCJCC
http://thejdc.convio.net/site/Calendar/1163557695?view=Detail&id=153548

Thursday, September 21 (Rosh Hashanah)
Apples and Honeys, 10 am, Bender JCC
http://www.benderjccgw.org/event/apples-honeys/

Sunday, September 24
Apples for Everyone, 11 am, EDCJCC
http://thejdc.convio.net/site/Calendar/932959594?view=Detail&id=153551

Saturday, September 30 (Yom Kippur)
I am Sorry Day, 10 am, Bender JCC
http://www.benderjccgw.org/event/im-sorry-day/

May you have a sweet new year!

Theater J’s “Broken Glass” Run Extended Until July 16!

The “Broken Glass” cast talks with Theater J staff about the play / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Today was supposed to be the last day that DC-area theater-goers could see “Broken Glass,” but now there’s a full new week of production! This is one of Arthur Miller’s last written plays (1995) and it centers around a group of American Jews reacting to Kristallnacht.

…well, kinda. Sylvia Gellburg (Lise Bruneau) loses the use of her legs after reading about and getting slightly wrapped up in the horrors happening in 1938 Germany. But she’s also dealing with a sexless marriage and falling in love with her doctor, Harry Hyman (Gregory Linington). Her husband, Phillip, (Paul Morella) struggles with wanting to assimilate in a world that still seems to infer that he’s an outsider.

I was reading a similar novel, The Houseguest by Kim Brooks, at the time, and in the midst of grappling with the difficulties in being objective with stories about the Holocaust. Every time Sylvia griped about something going on overseas that I knew was only the tip of the iceberg, and every time one of the men would attempt to contain her emotions as overwrought, I found myself getting frustrated. I tried to understand their worldview, and found it easiest to digest when characters would talk about America being seemingly different–a respite from a 2,000-plus year history of antisemitic persecution. And indeed perhaps in 1938, to the average American Jew, Kristallnacht felt like “just another pogrom.” Dr. Hyman had a nicely explored backstory in Heidelberg (where he got his medical degree due to Jewish quotas at U.S. universities), so we also got to see his grief and denial about what Germany was becoming. He was very astute about “the persecution complex,” and how everybody, Hitler above all, felt persecuted by others, but never turned the mirror on themselves.

But over all, I’m not sure that it fully works, juxtaposing these domestic dramas against Kristallnacht. It would be like a modern-setting play occasionally interrupting a monologue on a failed marriage with anecdotes from Syria.

I attended the play on June 29 because of the cast talkback session after the production. Among other topics discussed (like the intentionally ambiguous ending, complete with Phillip wearing concentration camp-striped pajamas) the actors mentioned how this play was Miller’s attempt to connect with his oft-ignored Jewish heritage. That in itself feels a little awkward to me–exploring your feelings of Jewish identity as an older man at the end of the 20th century through having characters react to Kristallnacht when it was still fresh. This isn’t The Crucible, where the Salem Witch Trials are allegorical for McCarthyism. This is about struggling with guilt concerning a very specific event in history, and I suppose I’m always a little disquieted by viewing the whole of Jewish identity through the Holocaust.

In technical terms, the play was very arresting. With only a few props on a minimalist set the actors took center stage, and their interactions were riveting whether played for comedy or drama. The production team worked with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to project period imagery onto the shattered glass background whenever there was a transition between scenes. Udi Bar-David played a haunting cello, and the cast confirmed that he performed original pieces, which were recorded at the University of Maryland.

All in all I think that it’s a play that you should judge for yourself; you can buy tickets here. Check out my past coverage of DC plays here!

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Life in Unusual Places

Irene Danner escaped to the circus after Kristallnacht / photo courtesy of Jewniverse

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 2017 is the 50th anniversary! :0 Instead of highlighting other countries, they’ve been focusing on circus arts and American immigration and migration.

Doubtless the Festival has done a great job in covering many aspects of these topics. But allow me to expand on their efforts! For the last several 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.

Jews and the Circus

From the earliest days of the circus, in Greco-Roman times, Jews had a relationship with them. Rabbinic ordinances in the Talmud go so far as to denounce circus attendance, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia:

He who frequents the stadia and the circuses, and sees there the magicians, the tumblers, the ‘buccones,’ the ‘maccus,’ the ‘moriones’ the ‘scurræ,’ and the ‘ludi sæculares’—this is ‘sitting in the seat of the scornful'” (Tosef., ‘Ab. Zarah, ii. 6: Yer. 40a, Bab. 18b; Yalḳ., Ps. 613).

However, even an important contributor to the Talmud, Rabbi Judah I, acknowledged some, er, “positive” aspects of the circus:

“We must thank the heathens that they let mimes appear in the theaters and circuses, and thus find innocent amusement for themselves, otherwise they would be constantly getting into great quarrels as soon as they had anything to do with one another” (Gen. R. lxxx. 1).

Fast forward to the 19th century, and the more modern rendition of the circus was sweeping over Europe. Aish highlights a few specific examples of early Jewish performers, like “Takhra Bey” of the Warsaw Circus, aka Moyshe Shtern, who pierced his body and face with needles and hung weights from them. And two tightrope walking sisters, Pese and Leah Rozentsvayg, married other performers from the tribe–clown Itsik Gayler and acrobat Yankev Birnboym, thereby starting a little bit of a family dynasty. The Lorch family was another prominent Jewish circus outfit, operating in Germany until 1930.

The circus took on new macabre dimensions for Jews during the Holocaust, according to Aish, for good or for evil. Some Jews were able to hide from Nazi detection, as family leader Alfred Althoff said: “Circus people don’t ask if you are Christian, Jewish or heathen.” Jewniverse did a profile on half-Jewish Irene Danner, a dancer who, after Kristallnacht, hid in the circus along with other members of her kin. But the Ovitz family in Romania suffered a worse fate. Many of their members were affected by dwarfism and performed some circus arts, attracting the attention of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. They were taken to Auschwitz where he performed experiments on them. Some of the family survived, and moved to Israel.

Earlier in 2017, The Ringling Brothers Circus shut down after a 146-year run. Though the Ringlings were gentiles, the most recent owners of the circus were the Jewish Feld family. Modern day opinion of circuses has swung back to the negative in part, this time due to concerns over animal treatment. But the Folklife Festival seems primed to showcase some thriving circus arts!

Jewish Migration in America

MyJewishLearning highlights the three most well known Jewish waves of immigration to America–the Sephardic settlers who arrived in the 17th century, the Germans who arrived a century later due to economic reasons or to escape persecution, and the Eastern European Jews who immigrated in the late 19th through early 20th centuries, mostly due to the pogroms. Up until World War II, there was a bit of a schism between the secular, assimilated German Jews and the newer, more numerous, more poor, Yiddish speaking and religious Eastern European Jews.

The United States, unlike Israel, is pretty uniformly Ashkenazic, aka the Jews with ancestry in Europe between Germany and Russia. But there are also some non-European enclaves, like Iranian Jews, many of whom fled after the Revolution and started a little subculture in Hollywood; check out 30 Years After for where some of their young professional community stands now. You can also find Ethiopian Jews through the Beta Israel of North America.

Post-Soviet Jews are some of the most recent arrivals to the Americas, and man do they write a lot of novels about their modern day immigrant experiences. 😛 Here’s just a few that I’ve read recently: The Cosmopolitans by Nadia Kalman, Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya and (short stories) One More Year by Sana Krasikov.

Also contrary to popular opinion, not all American Jews live in New York. 😛 The Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest chronicles migration there. I’m partial to Kansas myself, as that’s where my Jewish family ended up, so check out this article about 19th century Jewish farming communities in the state. Indeed with overcrowding back east, nervous assimilated Yids started sending the greenhorns westward, lest their numbers stir the ire of the nativists.

The southwest United States is largely known for its crypto Jewish community, aka Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism but for centuries have secretly practiced some old traditions. Check out my LibGuide for more. And on the subject of book recommendations (I haven’t read it, but want to!), An Empire of Their Own by Neal Gabler highlights the Jewish immigrants who helped shape Hollywood.

Finally, for a comprehensive look, PBS did air The Jewish Americans documentary series a few years back. Their webpage has more!

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival continues until July 9. Check out my past coverage of Jewish life in unique places under the “Annual Events” tab.

My Washington Jewish Film Fest ’17: Soviet-era documentary and Hasidic narrative film about single fatherhood

Filmmaker Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov speaks to a DC audience about OPERATION WEDDING, with writer Paul Goldberg in the background / photo taken by Rachel Mauro


Last Thursday, May 18, I made my way to Bethesda Row Cinema for the DC premiere of the documentary Operation Wedding. Filmmaker Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov sought to explore a new angle to the story of her already infamous parents, who in 1970 led a group of mostly Jewish dissidents on a failed attempt to escape the Soviet Union. Donned “Operation Wedding” because of their cover story of commandeering a plane for that purpose, they instead intended to use it to hop the border. They were caught and spent years in the gulag until international efforts got them out.

The film probes the idea of national perspective—whether these people were “heroes” or “terrorists,” and delves a bit into the storied Russian propaganda about the case. We also see rallies and hunger strikes abroad in an attempt to free Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s parents and more broadly the Soviet Jewish community. But perhaps the most moving part, certainly according to some of the audience, was filmed recently for this project. Zalmanson-Kuznetsov brought her mother back to her Latvian prison where she recalled dissociating from her harsh reality by waltzing in the courtyard.

The variety of footage and the close, personal connection gave this film a unique feel, like it was partially documentary and partially narrative, too. Zalmanson-Kuznetsov interviewed family and friends and probed her parents’ motives, which ultimately seemed to have less to do with escaping themselves than with forcing open a small crack in the Iron Curtain for Soviet Jews as a whole. The family now lives in Israel.

The screening was followed by a short Q&A, and discussion between Zalmanson-Kuznetsov and local Russian American author Paul Goldberg (spoiler alert—I’m reading his The Yid right now!) I thought that this would be my only time to see a filmmaker this festival season, but on Sunday night at AFI, Menashe director Joshua Z. Weinstein and star Menashe Lustig, also took a few minutes to speak at the end. Lustig sat next to me in the front row of the sold out theatre!

MENASHE director Joshua Z. Weinstein and star Menashe Lustig in conversation with WJFF director Ilya Tovbis / photo taken by Rachel Mauro


Menashe is another film that sort of teases the line between fact and fiction. Although a traditional, narrative movie, it is based heavily on the real Menashe’s life. He is also a widowed Hasid who ultimately lost unofficial custody of his son.

The film, spoken largely in Yiddish, chronicles Menashe’s struggles with single fatherhood and desire to maintain a relationship with his young child. But despite a couple of annoying characters, it doesn’t paint his traditional community as repressive. There are plenty of reasons why the son is better off with his aunt and uncle, not the least of which is that Menashe can barely make financial ends meet for himself. Ultimately, it’s a very transcendent, slightly comic human tale about struggle and relationships.

In the Q&A with WJFF Director Ilya Tovbis following the screening, the guests covered such topics as working with non-professional actors in the Hasidic community, the non-religious director’s personal takeaways from this project, and the star’s entrée into a more secular world. Lustig hadn’t entered a movie theater until promoting this project, it was revealed, but even as a child, he admitted to acting “talents” that he wanted to share. As usual at these sort of cultural events, as the member of a haredi community, he also acted as a gracious ambassador.

After dozens of screenings across the greater Washington area, the 27th Washington Jewish Film Festival comes to a close this Sunday, May 28. Personally, I’m itching to see one more film…you just may see me at this one on the final day. Otherwise, check out my past coverage of this event under the “Annual Events” tab.

Jewish Supreme Court Justices, Family Genealogy and Military Service Dominate 2017 Jewish American Heritage Month in DC

First Jewish U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis / photo courtesy of wikipedia

May is around the corner, and with it the 11th annual Jewish American Heritage Month! The official website has been updated with upcoming events at venues around the country.

The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington is teaming up with the National Archives to present this event:

Lecture and Book Signing with Dr. David Dalin, May 4, 7pm
Historian and Rabbi Dr. David Dalin will be in conversation with U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman about his recent book release, Jewish Justices of the Supreme Court: From Brandeis to Kagan. Book signing to follow!

Other events in the DC include Jewish genealogy lectures with DAR Library Manuscript Curator Pamela Baster on May 4 and with genealogist Daniel Horowitz at the Library of Congress on May 8. On Memorial Day weekend, The National Museum of American Jewish Military History is teaming up with Sixth & I to present a Shabbat service in honor of the Jewish service people who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Please feel free to add any comments about other JAHM events happening in the area. Check out my past coverage of Jewish American Heritage Month under the “Annual Events” tab.

Local Writers Explore the Theme of Unexpected Journeys at the 2017 Washington, DC Jewish Literary Festival

Local authors fair, consisting of Robert Gillette, Carolivia Herron, Peter Lovenheim, Elizabeth Poliner, Jennifer Robins, Benjamin Shalva, Paula Shoyer, Marlene Trestman and moderator Leslie Maitland / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Despite a bit of a false start with the snow earlier this week, the 19th Jewish Literary Festival put on by the EDCJCC kicked off on Wednesday evening with a panel of 8 local authors, and writer Leslie Maitland moderating.

Book topics ranged from Holocaust history to cookbooks to fiction and other nonfiction. Find a full list of titles here. Each author was given a little bit of time to introduce his/her work and apply it to the theme. Unsurprisingly for this sort of set up, some peoples’ narratives fit better into the idea of “unexplored journeys” than other peoples’ but they each obviously put a lot of thought and care into his/her project.

The story that intrigued me the most came from Peter Lovenheim, who, after a brutal murder-suicide on his block, felt the impetus to get to know his neighbors, and probe the idea of community in the modern age. He wrote the nonfiction book, In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. I’m also always curious about the intersection of Judaism and other cultures, which Jewish African American Carolivia Herron, covers in her novels (Peacesong DC) and children’s stories (Nappy Hair). And I have a personal connection to Elizabeth Poliner; she presided over my advanced fiction workshops a few years back at the Bethesda, MD-based Writer’s Center. Her novel, As Close to Us As Breathing, concerns the tragedy that befalls a Jewish American family in the 1940s; here she divulged that the title came to her via a prayer from the Kol Nidre service.

The event lasted a little over an hour, giving participants enough time to introduce themselves and answer a couple of questions. The audience queried about such things ranging from specific characters in a certain book to the nature of finding a publisher or agent. Speaking of diversity, that last one tends to lead to a variety of answers, too! After conclusion, the EDCJCC offered a table of desserts, and authors stuck around to sell and sign their books.

The literary festival continues through to this Sunday, March 19; you can find the rest of the schedule here. (The Bethesda Jewish Congregation is also hosting an event with journalist and bestseller, Iris Krasnow that afternoon!) The official opening event, Noa Baum’s solo talk about her memoir, A Land Twice Promised: An Israeli Woman’s Quest for Peace, has been moved to April 27.