DC Chanukah Happenings 5779!

Chanukah Menorah/ photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The winter holidays are upon us, and Chanukah is on the early side this year! The holiday begins on the evening of December 2 and it lasts until December 9. It’s almost time to fry those latkes and kindle the menorah lights! Check out these local events happening around town, and feel free to add more in the comments. Chag Sameach!

Wednesday, November 28
Hipster Hanukkah Holiday Market
Etsy in real life, plus other fun things!
6:30 pm, Foundry United Methodist Church

Sunday, December 2
Celebrate Chanukah with Makers Day at the J
Children’s crafting event for the holiday!
10 am, Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia

Make Room for the Latkes 2018
Family fun event with a focus on interfaith families!
10:30 am, Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital

Chanukah at the Ellipse
American Friends of Lubavitch starts off the holiday season with this annual ceremony on the White House lawn.
4 pm, The Ellipse

Monday, December 3
Family Chanukah Party
Candle lighting, holiday food, story time and crafts!
5:30 pm, Bender JCC

Wednesday, December 5
Light up the Night! Community Menorah Lighting
Light candles, sing songs, enjoy entertainment!
5:30 pm, Mosaic District

Hanukkah Happy Hour (Off) the Hill: Time Hop Edition
Annual young adult soiree with an ‘80s/’90s theme, drinks, food specials and surprises. Plus a clothing drive!
6 pm, Decades

My So-Called Jewish Life
Not entirely Chanukah-related, but the 10th annual presentation of autobiographical stories from Story District.
7:30 pm, Sixth & I

Thursday, December 6
Oh Gaydel, Oh Gaydel!
Celebrate the holiday with the LGBTQ Jewish community!
6 pm, Pitchers DC

Sunday, December 9
Hadar: Beyond the Chanukkiah
Morning workshops on various aspects of Jewish education around the holiday.
10 am, the Broadmoor

Sunday, December 16
Zemer Chai Holiday Concert
According to their website, this festival of lights will be filled with songs of justice, compassion and freedom of religion
6 pm, Kennedy Center

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Israeli Award-Winning Film Explores Forbidden Love in Cloistered Community

“Red Cow” movie poster / courtesy of the Israel Film Fund

Despite the first snow and sleet of the season, a full house of Washingtonians gathered at Bethesda Row Cinema last Thursday night for a showing of the Israeli film Red Cow. The movie was aired as part of the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center’s Washington Jewish Film Festival Year-Round Program. It was co-presented by Tagg Magazine and Reel Affirmations.

“Red Cow” (or “Para Aduma” in Hebrew) is named for the biblically heralded red heifer which portends a return to Jewish temple worship in the Holy Land. The movie opens when a fundamentalist religious group finds a cow that fits that description and assigns main character, Benny (Avigayil Koevary) with taking care of her.

Benny’s father Yehoshua (Gal Toren) is the leader of a gated community in East Jerusalem, which prays for a return to ancient Jewish life. He relies heavily on his only daughter, and seeming family after his mother’s death, but Benny feels alienated from his beliefs. The film chronicles her sexual awakening as she gets involved with new girl Yael (Moran Rosenblatt.)

Like most foreign films, at least in my limited experience, this hour and a half long feature is a very minimalist affair. Though Yehoshua quotes Scripture and argues with other religious men about politics, he never has a speech where he declares “Welcome to my compound! Here are the rules!” Deference from other characters points him as the leader, and he seems to be in charge of a school for girls. Otherwise, Benny spends her time praying with him when he can’t find a minyan and grabbing him from an ancient mikveh late at night.

The East Jerusalem landscape feels larger than life with its expansive views of ancient structures and roadways, and its audio populated by the muzzein and quickly chanted Hebrew prayer. Certainly lends to the air of conflict, as does Yehoshua trying to force entrance into the Temple Mount on Yom Kippur, and speaking blithely about destroying the Dome of the Rock and the people who must die to bring about his fundamentalist utopia.

But it’s such a personal story without any real threat that the man mostly comes off as cold, sad and awkward as his daughter’s indiscretions come to light. Again, it’s more about what he intuits from interpersonal scenes than any big revelations. Benny and Yael’s love affair is fast and viscerally shot. The relationship carries no dramatic climax cast to a cinematic score. One might even say that Benny’s relationship with the young cow brings more emotional gravitas. But the question of who she really is remains at the forefront of her troubled existence, even when the final scene takes her to the secular world.

Red Cow was nominated this year for 4 Ophirs (the Israeli Oscars) and it won for best feature and best actress for Avigayil Kovary. It is also Tsivia Barkai Yacov’s directorial debut, and is just recently making its rounds in the United States. Click here for more information. And you can find my similar content and movie reviews under the Books, Plays, Music and Movies tab!

Gary Shteyngart Tackles Hedge Fund Manager Culture in LAKE SUCCESS

Gary Shteyngart reads from his novel, “Lake Success.” / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

For the first time in a long while, I made my way over to Sixth & I Historic Synagogue Tuesday evening to hear a Politics & Prose book talk by novelist Gary Shteyngart. His latest, Lake Success, is a study on the dudebro culture of hedge fund managers (link to book trailer starring Shteyngart and actor Ben Stiller.) Self-made character Barry Cohen abandons his family and his under-investigation business to take a trip cross-country to rekindle an old flame. Sitting in a synagogue, Steyngart described his protagonist with Yiddish attributes–he’s a schmuck (a jerk), a gonif (thief) and schnorer (beggar.) The book is a satirical take on this culture, set against the backdrop of the 2016 American presidential election.

Shteyngart is most well known for writing a book every four years that dips into his own heritage. Born in Leningrad to Jewish parents, he immigrated to America as a child. He grew up in New York, and specifically expanded his output due to hedge fund managers being the only people who can afford to live in Manhattan anymore.

He spoke briefly and then read a few long excerpts about Barry’s quick-lived “bromance” with a former employee, whom he then attempts to beg for money to fund the rest of his journey. The author describes himself as having no imagination, and he himself actually boarded a Greyhound bus for a four-month trip to middle America. He also spent time with hedge fund managers and their wives, one of whom called a school “diverse” because some of the students had doctors or lawyers for parents.

His comments were witty and engaging, and several people took to the mic to ask him about his other books or lessons learned on the road. He spoke of Greyhound bus drivers as drill sergeants who call the shots, except that passengers have to make sure they’re awake while driving at night. He also ran into “interesting” people, ranging from college students, ex-prisoners and hospital patients crossing state lines, to white supremacists who boarded and talked about “crucifying Muslims and Jews.” What stuck with Shteynart was how the Trump administration may have emboldened them to be more open, but also the majority of the bus, largely comprised of women and minorities, didn’t challenge them.

In terms of writing satire, he wanted to bring his flawed characters to a place where they could almost taste redemption, but then fall short. Seems like most people in attendance won’t “fall short” of reading it! (Maybe I should leave the comedy to him. :P) Following the hour-long discussion and q&a, Shteyngart signed several copies of his work. To purchase a copy of Lake Success (and support your local indie!), click here. And you can find similar coverage of my attended literary events under the Books, Plays, Movies and Music tab!

A belated ringing in of 5779!

Adas Israel’s high holidays 5779 theme / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

We’re now deep into the fall holidays, so better recap my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at Adas Israel! Here are my High Holidays Highlights:

  • Adas changed up some of the protocol on Rosh Hashanah–they encouraged all of us to clamor into Smith in order to hear the shofar for the first time. It was my first time in the main sanctuary for the morning of Rosh Hashanah Day 1, though I did have to leave afterwards to cede the space to reserved ticketeers. Then I went down to Kay Hall, where I usually spend the Torah service and musaf. But Smith is very much a part of my festivities on Rosh Hashanah Day 2. I joined the flash choir led by Cantor Brown yet again to sing Leonard Cohen’s rendition of Hal’lujah psalm as arranged by Elliot Z. Levine. For most of High Holidays, I admittedly feel like an invisible drop of water in a huge ocean. But RHD2 has become my chance to be proactively and publicly engaged with the holiday. I like the smaller, more intimate feel of the service, too.
  • Due to the weather–Hurricane Florence loomed heavily Rabbi Holtzblatt’s sermon–the usually outdoor “Return Again” Kol Nidre was moved indoors. I arrived maybe 10-15 minutes before the official start of the service, and spent ample time in lines that snaked through the parking lot before streaming into the building through the preschool entrance. I guess I got a feel for how large the parking lot actually is, because so far it accommodates everyone, I believe, who wants to attend this free event. Whereas this year I and others watched a broadcast from Smith in the “overflow” room of Kay. Proceedings were delayed until everyone was inside, making for a late but inclusive night. I’m starting to get used to the song melodies and instrumentation, and largely closed my eyes and swayed around a bit. In terms of kinetic spirituality, this was it.
  • This year’s Yom Kippur afternoon guests were podcasters and Adas members Alix Speigel and Hanna Rosin. Their show, Invisibilia, tracks specific stories and focuses on the human behaviors behind them. In conversation with Adas’s senior rabbis, they centered on themes of apology and forgiveness in the public sphere. This has long been an area of personal interest, as communities are starting to use social media to regulate “appropriate” responses to controversy and bad behavior–what these ladies referred to as “call out culture.” Where’s the line between sincerity/authenticity and a social totalitarianism? Beyond that, I enjoyed Rabbi Alexander’s sermon on self-forgiveness and how the idea might be implicitly referred to in sacred texts. He also taught us a niggun to sing as he read passages to invoke the feeling of ancient temple sacrifices. And the martyrology service was perhaps a little less communal than years past–no dittoes and group discussions–though one Adas member recounted for all of us his family’s tragic Holocaust story and it’s redemptive end. Followed by a moving a acapella piece by our annual singing quartet about finding faith even in the darkness. A nice way to start the new year off on the right foot.

What were your favorite experiences of High Holidays 5779? Feel free to share in the comments!

Sukkot continues through Sunday, Sept 30, followed by Simchat Torah in October! Check out what local synagogues are up to by clicking here.

DC High Holidays Classes and Events 5779

Apple picking is a common tradition around Rosh Hashanah / image courtesy of GetDrawings.com

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, Jconnect 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, the Bender JCC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Lots of apple pickings this year. 😛 Please leave others in the comments!


Wednesday, September 5 and Wednesday, September 12
Hit Refresh: Preparing for the High Holidays, 7 pm, Sixth & I
https://www.sixthandi.org/event/hit-refresh-preparing-for-the-high-holidays/

Sunday, September 9
A Taste of Apples and Honey: Community Apple Picking, 2:30 pm, JCCNV
https://www.jccnv.org/index.php?src=events&srctype=detail&category=Adults&refno=188636
Days of Awe-some: Exploring Rosh Hashanah, 4 pm, EDCJCC
http://thejdc.convio.net/site/Calendar/625270278?view=Detail&id=154662

Wednesday, September 12
Rosh Hashanah Pick ‘n Picnic, 10:30 am, Bender JCC
https://www.benderjccgw.org/event/pick-n-picnic/

Thursday, September 13
Cheers to a Sweet New Year with Young Leadership Donors, 6:30 pm, JFGW
https://www.shalomdc.org/event/ylgivingthankyouevent/
The Unkosher Comedy Tour: Confessions, 7 pm, EDCJCC
http://thejdc.convio.net/site/Calendar?id=154677&view=Detail

Sunday, September 16
Pick with PJ: Apple Picking Event, 10 am, JFGW
https://www.shalomdc.org/event/pickwithpj/

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Life in Unusual Places

Mordechai Navi Synagogue in Yerevan / courtesy of vacio on wikipedia

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 2018 they’ve been focusing on Armenia and Catalonia.

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.

Armenia

The Jewish Armenian community dates back 2,000 years, since the destruction of the First Temple, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. In 69 BCE, King Tigranes II the Great brought 10,000 more Palestinian Jews as captives when the Romans attacked Armenia. Around 360-370 CE there was a Hellenistic influx that turned several towns predominately Jewish, though the Persian leader Sharpur II deported thousands to Iran.

The community dwindled in medieval times, possibly becoming Kurdish. An ancient Jewish cemetery in the city of Eghegis boasts more than forty 13th century tombstones written in Hebrew and Aramaic. But by the 19th century, new Jews from Persia and Poland began immigrating to the area. Numbers spiked again around World War II when Armenia was under the Soviet umbrella. Wartime population was around 5,000, and then 10,000 in 1959. Armenia was more liberal than Russia or Ukraine, so Jews of the intelligentsia, military and sciences came between 1965 and 1972.

Antisemitism saw a recent spike at the turn of the 21st century, with a conflagration of ultranationalist hate speech, television broadcasts and Holocaust memorial vandalism, as covered by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Otherwise, antisemitic incidents are relatively minor. Israel and Armenia have diplomatic relations, but neither has an embassy in the other country.

Assimilation and intermarriage are big in Armenia, and current day Jewish numbers are under 1,000. Also, more than 6,000 Jews immigrated to Israel during the final years of the USSR. Almost half of the population now resides in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. That city and two others have Jewish community centers, including a Chabad House that opened in 1995. It’s Rabbi, Gershom Meir Berstein, is the only rabbi in the country, though his organization is helping to provide kosher food. In 2002, Rimma Varzhapetian became the president of the Jewish community. The Armenian government provides a state-sponsored weekly television show about Jewish and Israeli culture, and they’ve retrieved some Torah scrolls that were taken from the community in the past. Most of the current day population is Ashkenazi, with smaller pockets of Georgian and Mizrahi Jews.

Catalonia

Jews started settling in Catalonia, a northeastern region in Spain, in the 8th century, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia. For a time they lived under the king’s protection, but the clergy gradually gained control and rights were reduced. Though they were allowed property rights, in 1068 and 1078 it was decreed that they had to pay a tithe to the parish where their lands were situated. Jews had to take oaths to Christians but never the other way around, and Jews couldn’t be admitted as witnesses against Christians. Forced conversions were a popular ideal in medieval times, and Jews were often targeted during the Crusades, despite a chastising letter from the pope. Like in the rest of the country, Catalan Jews were expelled in 1492.

In recent years, the region has made international headlines as large factions seek independence from Spain. Last year Tablet Magazine published an article by Catalan Jew, Antoni Maroto, in support of the movement, by comparing Spanish treatment of Catalonia to that of the country’s Jews:

For centuries, the Spanish Inquisition persecuted those who didn’t conform to the religious standard. My ancestors were forced to convert to Christianity or die. After forty years, a fascist government died in 1975 with Franco. Nonetheless, his heirs still hold key positions. The Francisco Franco Foundation gets subsidies from the Spanish government, so it can continue to promote the work of a dictator. I find it outrageous, since Franco ordered the killing of some of my family members. These relatives remained in a mass grave for decades. Finally, ten years ago, a permit was granted to reinter them with dignity. This is just one example of Spain’s Pacto del Olvido (Pact of Forgetting). When it comes to democracy, Spain is still an amateur. Could you imagine Germany funding a Hitler Foundation?

The Jerusalem Post reported that the Jewish Spanish community was divided on the issue of Catalonian independence. JTA published a list of four Jewish things about modern-day Catalonia. For a historical take, check out the book A History of Jewish Catalonia: The Life and Death of Jewish Communities in Medieval Catalonia by Sílvia Planas and Manuel Forcano. This was also the heyday of a defunct Jewish language, Judeo-Catalan!

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival continues until July 8. Check out my past coverage of Jewish life in unique places under the “Annual Events” tab.

Theater J’s World Premiere “Trayf” Probes Changing Identities

The cast of “Trayf” speaks with Theater J Associate Producer Kevin Price / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Relationships are tested as individuals flirt with big changes in Lindsay Joelle’s world premiere play “Trayf,” running until June 24 at Theater J.

Shmuel (Josh Adams) and Zalmy (Tyler Herman) are two Chabad-Lubavitchers in 1991 who drive a “Mizvah Tank” through New York. Their goal is to get secular Jews to perform traditional Jewish acts, but their only customer is Jonathan (Drew Kopas.) Raised Catholic, he recently discovered his father’s hidden Jewish identity from when he was smuggled away from the Holocaust as a baby. Feeling aimless in his life as a struggling music producer in Manhattan, he now seeks a connection to this community.

On the other side of the coin, Zalmy has been secretly flirting with secular life, starting with listening to non-Jewish music. He agrees to become Jonathan’s “teacher” over Shmuel’s objections (Jonathan is technically a non-Jew, aka “trayf”). Zalmy has ulterior motives, of course, and in a wistful scene that takes place on the upper level of the stage that embodied Brooklyn’s residential streets, the two young men are waxing poetic about each other’s experiences. Jonathan wants the strong family bonds and focus on love and spirituality. Zalmy wants the freedom to wear jeans, meet girls and engage with a different culture.

The 90-minute play chugs swiftly forward in time as Jonathan (later “Yoni”) becomes more religious, and Zalmy sneaks out more to roller skate, see Broadway musicals and simply stand on subways with people who look different than him. Shmuel starts to get jealous as his childhood bestie spends more and more time with the outsider, but his defensive personality often precludes him from being receptive to Zalmy’s larger crisis of faith. The mix tape vs albums conflict of the 1990s lends a nice aesthetic to the tensions between these guys, who, after all spend a lot of time driving around in a truck. I also appreciated the play’s soundtrack of popular secular music mashed together with Yiddish boys’ choirs and the like.

Though the story is ultimately a relationship drama, comedic moments abound. Lindsay Joelle penned great lines about dating foibles and light-to-serious personality clashes, but kudos must additionally be given to the performances of the three leads. Also appearing for one scene in the play is Leah (Madeline Joey Rose), Jonathan’s assimilated Jewish girlfriend who doesn’t appreciate his sudden interest in the Orthodox world. She was funny, too, particularly in describing the awkwardness of being a gangly 13-year-old Jewish girl forced to attend 100 bar mitzvahs in a year. 😛

The Holocaust also featured strongly as a backdrop to this story. Shmuel reminded us that the Chabad Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (still alive in 1991) started his particular sect in order to make up for the genocide, and usher in messianic times, by bringing recalcitrant Jews back into the fold. Jonathan naturally feels that call to Judaism after learning about his father’s Holocaust-tinged past. But the Holocaust can also be distancing for Jews. Leah tells Shmuel that her Hebrew school experiences included pretending to be crammed into cattle cars; the lesson she took away was that being Jewish was “a liability.” This underscores my personal argument that it’s dangerous to make Judaism all about this mass tragedy.

I went to see the play on Thursday, June 14 so that I could also listen to the cast talkback session. Madeline Joey Rose talked about how many times her scene was workshopped in the year preceding production, and how at first it wasn’t even with Josh Adams. Definitely a good change, imho, since Leah and Shmuel were basically the “spurned” parties as Jonathan and Zalmy sought out new relationships. You could feel the tension between Leah and Shmuel’s different worldviews, but also their startling similarities.

The boys spent a lot of time patting each other’s de-bearded faces; the Theater J instagram even features a video of Josh Adams getting bearded up backstage. 😛

A couple of audience members had quibbles about word pronunciations and addresses, but Associate Producer Kevin Price explained ways that Theater J reached out to the local Chabad community for input. Lindsay Joelle apparently incorporated a lot of notes, and in a printed dramaturgy interview she detailed her own research, from questioning rabbis and learning how to wrap teffilin to listening to a bris over speaker phone. The play was inspired by her friend, a former Chabad-Lubavitcher who left the community. It won the 2016 Rita Goldberg Award and was a Jewish Plays Project top ten finalist.

“Trayf” will be Theater J’s final play before it shuts down for a year of renovations! The 2018/2019 season will be held at the Kennedy Center, Arena Stage, GALA Hispanic Theatre and Georgetown University. Love to the DC community!

Check out my past coverage of DC plays on my new “Books, Plays, Movies and Music” page!