Jewish Bollywood Day at the 2018 Washington Jewish Film Festival!

Solochana, aka Ruby Myers, the earliest Jewish Bollywood star / photo courtesy of Wikipedia

I’ve been attending the EDCJCC’s Jewish Film Festival for over 10 years now, and at last it feels like my day has finally come! I’m far from a Bollywood aficionado but I’ve engaged in ordering some modern films from Netflix in my day. Last Saturday, the festival and AFI Silver Theatre brought us back to the early-to-mid 20th century with the documentary Shalom Bollywood, followed by the 1955 film Shree 420, starring Baghdadi Jew Farhat Ezekiel, more commonly known by her stage name, Nadira.

Shalom Bollywood is a joint production of India and Australia, as director and producer, Danny Ben-Moshe, is Australian. The general premise is that in Bollywood’s early years, Hindu and Muslim women were dissuaded from performing, so the Jews found themselves primed for showbiz. The film chronologically follows the careers of five Bollywood stars. They include Solochana (Ruby Myers) of the silent film/ “early talkies” era; and from the golden age, Miss Rose (Rose Musleah), Pramila (Esther Victoria Abraham), Nadira and Uncle David (David Abraham Cheulkar.) A “today” section gives the audience a brief look into the careers of Haider Ali (Pramila’s son) and Rachel Reuben (Miss Rose’s granddaughter.)

There’s a jocular, light-hearted tint to this film, which features lots of cartoonish depictions of the actresses wiggling their hips (though apparently most of them were known for their eyes. Really carried the acting in these classic films, imho.) Uncle David abandoned the possibility of a career as a lawyer to pursue his dream on the silver screen. He and several of the ladies were also a bit into the party scene. This was a strange juxtaposition against the fact that many of these stars actually ended their lives in pretty low and lonely places. The stress of showbiz seems to be ubiquitous, whether you’re working out of Los Angeles or Bombay/Mumbai.

Still, the film does an admirable job of documenting Bollywood for an unfamiliar audience. Using archival footage but nixing any English subtitles, narrator Ayesha Dharker weaves a tapestry summarizing the storylines of several Bollywood movies and how they fit into broader Indian history. India’s Jewish communities are also, of course, touched upon, and Nadira’s good friend and Jewish communal leader Solomon Sopher is interviewed. India is also a land known for its lack of antisemitism–which often leads to intermarriage–as was the case with Pramila and her Muslim husband. Ali talks about his family’s dedication to multicultralism and coexistence, but he’s also passionate about his mother’s Jewish customs.

Following this was a showing of the classic Bollywood movie, Shree 420, where a country bumpkin who moves to Bombay is drawn into a Ponzi scheme by some nefarious rich folks. Nadira plays “the vamp,” which Shalom Bollywood explained was the temptress role meant to act in contrast to the more virtuous heroine. Nadira’s character was immoral and uncouth, and at one point she tempted the male lead by dancing in a dress so skin-tight that she couldn’t even sit down between takes.

The film quality was scratchy and, like with other subtitles I’ve seen, there were often misspellings and even a section where it cut out completely. But other production values stood the test of time, I think, particularly when “the spirit” of the female protagonist left her body to implore the male lead to stay. The film also featured the catchy tune, “Meera Joota Hai Japani,” which went on to be a big hit, including in Israel!

There was no Jewish content in the film itself, but it’s interesting to consider it’s context in history. Produced less than 10 years after India’s independence, it seems to be probing, sometimes quite directly, the role of Indians on the international stage. Will they be swindlers, or a source of morality? I’ll let you guess the ending. 😛

Shalom Bollywood and Shree 420 were sponsored at the Washington Jewish Film Festival by Sephardic Heritage International DC, and the former was also sponsored by the Embassy of Australia. The festival ended last Sunday, May 13, but for coverage of previous years, click my “Annual Events” tab.

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Interracial Protest During Maryland’s Segregation Featured for 2018 Jewish American Heritage Month

Members of the largely Jewish neighborhood of Bannockburn, Md, protested the Glen Echo Park segregation / photo courtesy of the Bannocburn Facebook page

May is around the corner, and with it the 12th annual Jewish American Heritage Month! The official website has been updated with activities, resources and more.

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

Panel Discussion abut the Glen Echo Protests
May 17, 7 pm
Filmmaker Ilana Tratchman, will discuss her work-in-progress Ain’t No Back to a Merry-Go-Round, about a 1960 interracial protest against a segregated park in Glen Echo, Md.

The Washington Post wrote this about the actively involved Bannockburn, Md. community in a 2010 article:

The neighborhood was founded by Jews, many of whom had escaped Europe during the Holocaust of World War II. The founders of what would become Bannockburn had difficulty finding land or financing because of deed covenants preventing Jews or other minority groups from being able to buy the property.

Other events in the DC area include a May 7 book talk on “Roads Taken: Jewish Peddlers and Their American Journey” by Prof. Hasia Diner at the Library of Congress and co-sponsored by The Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington. On May 25, Sixth & I and the National Museum of American Jewish Military History are reprising their Memorial Day Shabbat.

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.

Chloe Benjamin Explores the Meaning of Life in THE IMMORTALISTS, w/ Jewish Family and Prophecy

Chloe Benjamin discusses her novel THE IMMORTALISTS in front of a crowd at East City Bookshop / photo by Rachel Mauro

Last year I was skipping off to the Washington, DC Jewish Literary Festival, but in lieu of that, DC indie bookstores do provide! I attended a packed house on Friday, March 9, where Chloe Benjamin spoke about her novel, The Immortalists, at East City Bookshop.

Widely popular in the secular world, this novel isn’t ostensibly Jewish. I even heard a couple of people talking in the signing line about their surprise at the lack of it. Still, the main characters, the Gold siblings, are from the Tribe, and apparently Judaism manifests in several ways. One of the book sections that Benjamin read featured the protagonist recalling her father lighting Shabbat candles.

Benjamin goes into more detail about the Jewish angle in an essay on JBC’s ProsenPeople blog. In it, she brings up her own religious background and then discusses how the Gold siblings connect to Judaism in various ways. And on a more thematic note she had this to say:

I was drawn to Judaism in the context of this novel for multiple reasons. While Christianity places great focus on life after death, Judaism’s gaze remains fixed on olam ha-ze: this world. I was curious about how the siblings would approach their mortality without the imaginative “escape hatch” of heaven.

The novel follows the young Gold siblings on a portentous date in 1969 where they each receive news about their deaths. From there, it splits into four parts where we follow each of the four protagonists throughout their lives. Benjamin–and book critics–point out that there is no magical realist conceit beyond the original prophecy; the focus of the book is to probe how and why these people make the choices they do, and what “life” inevitably means to them.

Bubbly and effusive, Benjamin makes her preoccupation with these existential issues sound more relaxed than dire. At one point, when reading from a section featuring a gay male dancer with the same name as her mother, she broke out into constant laughter. Her grandmother was in the audience, though she claimed that she was more concerned with what the rest of us must be thinking of this tableau. Afterwards, she cheerfully answered several questions, ranging from her writing process and reader tastes to book spoilers, which she deftly skirted while still giving new insights.

This is Benjamin’s second published novel, though it is the one that’s propelled her into the spotlight. I look forward to seeing where she goes from here!

Celebrate Purim in 5778!

graphic courtesy of Clipart Library

Purim starts on February 28, 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.

…but you don’t have to wait until the 14th of Adar to dress up as your favorite Biblical character, or at least to get down. Enjoy these local offerings of Purim-related festivities leading up to and encompassing this holiday event! I’ll be at Adas Israel for their Purim spiel, as part of the adult flash choir! 😀 Chag sameach.

Saturday, February 24

Bethesda Jewish Congregation Religious School Purim Carnival
https://bethesdajewish.org/event/religious-school-25-2018-02-24/

Sunday, February 25

Adat Shalom A Colorful Purim: Purim Carnival
jconnect

Congregation Beth Emeth Purim Palooza in Northern Virginia
jconnect

Washington Hebrew Congregation Not Your Ordinary Hamentaschen
jconnect

Wednesday, February 28

Temple Shalom Wizard of Oz of Purim
jconnect

Purim gets Wild at Adas Israel!
https://www.adasisrael.org/purim

Tikvat Israel Purim Puppet Show
http://tikvatisrael.org/events/purim-puppet-show-4/

Sixth & I Grogger and Glow: A Purim Celebration
https://www.sixthandi.org/event/grogger-glow-purim-celebration-2/

Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim Pirate Purim
http://www.htaa.org/event/purim-party.html

Commemorate MLK Weekend 2018 and Tu B’Shevat 5778 in DC!

Image courtesy of Open Clip Art

Happy 2018! As this is my first post of the year, I thought I’d share a few stats from 2017. According to WordPress, JewishDC got 1,648 views and 1,173 visitors, with the largest numbers coming from the US, Israel, the UK, Canada, India and Germany. Wow! My most popular post of the year was Local Writers Explore the Theme of Unexpected Journeys at the 2017 DC Jewish Literary Festival.

Thanks so much for your support, everyone, and I look forward to a fruitful new secular year! Let’s get into some holidays and community service.

In mid to late January we have one secular and one religious holiday crop up in our midst–MLK Weekend goes from Jan 13-15 and Tu B’Shevat occurs between Jan 30 and 31. 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 and featuring their two choirs. Also focusing on the work of Civil Rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
  • Washington Hebrew Congregation’s MLK Shabbat and Dinner. Hosting partner churches and mosques, meant in part to honor the memories of social activists Rev Lewis Anthony and Rev Morris Shearin, Jr. Service featuring some of those who protested in 1960 at the segregated Glen Echo Amusement Park.
  • Adas Israel’s Weekend of Tikkun Olam. Featuring a Friday night Return Again Shabbat Service, dinner and a Saturday morning service with guests from the Howard University Gospel Choir and speaker Angela King, cofounder of Life After Hate.
  • Also check out Monday Days of Service with the EDCJCC!

Tu B’Shevat

  • EDCJCC’s family event, Jan 28, 10:30 am.
  • Sixth & I is offering both yoga (Jan 27, 11 am) and a seder! (Jan 30, 6:30 pm)

DC Chanukah Happenings 5778!

Dreidels in Israel / photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The multi-holiday season is upon us; weather is unseasonably warm, and people are counting the days, if they’re not there already, until they get a little time off from work or school. It’s time to fry those latkes and kindle the Chanukah lights! Local Jewish groups are rolling out the red carpet for this well-known Jewish holiday, which will take place this year from sundown Dec. 12 to sundown Dec. 20. Check these out! Feel free to add more in the comments, and chag sameach.

EDCJCC Chanukah Celebration 2017
Family friendly event, featuring a moon bounce, games, crafts, treats and more.
Sunday, December 10, 10 am, EDCJCC

Chanukah at the Ellipse
American Friends of Lubavitch starts off the holiday season with this annual ceremony on the White House lawn.
Tuesday, December 12, 4 pm, the Ellipse

Hanukkah Happy Hour (off) the Hill: Time Hop
This time-honored young adult party, still being sponsored by numerous local Jewish organizations, is moving to Decades and taking on a time travel theme!
Wednesday, December 13, 6 pm, Decades

Chanukah Community Candle Lighting
Family and all-abilities friendly event, featuring menorah lighting, dreidel spinning, latkes, donuts, games and more.
Wednesday, December 13, 6:30 pm, EDCJCC

Festival of Mics: A Chanukah Celebration
Karaoke night for young professionals with Chanukah drinks, a craft-your-own latkes bar and more!
Saturday, December 16, 8 pm, Sixth & I

I Have a Little Dreidel: An LGBTQ Family Chanukah Celebration
A chance to connect with similar families and explore Chanukah with personalized dreidels and more!
Sunday, December 17, 2 pm, EDCJCC

Zemer Chai Chanukah Concert
Choral arrangements, including Judas Maccabeus by Handel and holiday music from all around the world. The choir is joined by the Symphony of the Potomac.
Sunday, December 17, 4:30 pm, B’nai Israel Congregation

Silent Film Comes Alive with Accompaniment as part of the Washington DC Jewish Music Festival

Musicians Gabriel Thibaudeau and Devon Oviedo after performing live accompaniment to the silent film, “Humoresque” / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Literature, film and music combined on Sunday afternoon, the last day of the 19th annual Washington, DC Jewish Music Festival. In partnership with AFI, the festival hosted a screening of Humoresque, the 1920 silent film based on a short story of the same name by Fannie Hurst.

Canadian composer and pianist Gabriel Thibaudeau was joined by local violinist Devon Oviedo for the performance. Thibaudeau explained in a short q & a afterwards that he had his grandmother in mind as he cobbled together the score from popular music from the time. Principal among that was the song that the story was named after–Humoresque by Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák. In addition, he used the beginning of Kol Nidre, the liturgy that begins the Yom Kippur holiday, which was also part of the plot.

The story involves the son of a Jewish family living in the New York tenements around the beginning of the 20th century. He begs for an expensive violin for his birthday, which his mother indulges, much to his father’s chagrin. But ten years later, the boy, Leon, is living his ma’s dream by being internationally famous. The family moves out of the slums and onto Fifth Avenue. Leon even begins courting a girl from the neighborhood with a similar trajectory. But just as his life seems to have hit its stride, the Great War starts and he feels compelled to enlist. The written story ends on an ambiguous note, with Leon playing the happy and sad “Humoresque” before reporting for duty. The movie extends beyond that to give a more conclusive ending.

I loved the acting in the movie, particularly that of the mother, Sarah Kantor as played by Vera Gordon. At one point we could see a tear staining her eye, so the cinematography is also commendable. I like how, in the tenements, which the movie just went ahead and called “the Ghetto,” everyone looked much more traditional with their house dresses, and caftans and yarmulkes for the men. We even got to see Abrahm Kantor kiss his mezuzah and Sarah visit the synagogue. But once they made it big, it was all evening gowns and tuxedos and slicked back hair. It reminded me of reading a novel with similar rags-to-riches Jewish characters in the 1930s, called Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown.

But the narrative cards in the film were much more melodramatic. Much better was when it stuck to the comedic and anxious dialogue of the characters. Otherwise I found myself missing Hurst’s complex descriptions of life, like:

Beneath where even in the August noonday, the sun cannot find its way by a chink, and babies lie stark naked in the cavernous shade. Allen Street presents a sort of submarine and greenish gloom, as if its humanity were actually moving through a sea of aqueous shadows, faces rather bleached and shrunk from sunlessness as water can bleach and shrink. And then, like a shimmering background of orange-finned and copper-finned marine life, the brass-shops of Allen Street, whole rows of them, burn flamelessly and without benefit of fuel.

I also noticed how the love interest was delegated from a singer in her own right to a generic side character, though I suppose that would have been a distracting subplot in the film. The adaptation also changed the reason why the Kantors fled Russia—because of anti-Jewish pogroms—to the more universal idea of cruel autocracy, which spurred America’s involvement in the War. Then again, I was surprised that parts of this 1920 film could be so blatantly Jewish in the first place.

The modern musical addition, however, left nothing to be desired. It flowed so seamlessly into the emotions portrayed on screen that I could hardly consider the film existing without it. I did enjoy a few little flourishes, like Oviedo’s bad violin playing for kiddie Leon and later for his nephew, and Thibaudeau’s trill on the piano when Abrahm tugged Leon’s ear. Quite the enjoyable performance.

Though the music festival has concluded, AFI’s Silent Cinema Showcase will continue through November 26. Click here for more information. And check out my past coverage of the Washington DC Jewish Music Festival under the “annual events” tab.