The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Culture in Unusual Places

Smithsonian building / image courtesy of Wikipedia

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival takes place every summer, bringing amazing world cultural events to the National Mall! Every year has specific themes, and in 2011 they are focusing on Colombia, the Peace Corps, and rhythm and blues.

Doubtless the festival will do a great job covering many aspects of these communities. But allow me to help out! It is a personal passion of mine to show to the world that Jews are more than Eastern Europeans descendants eating bagels and lox. 😛 Jewish culture has touched almost every region of the world, and of course, visa versa. So let’s begin.


According to the Jewish Virtual History Library, Jews first came to Colombia in the 16th century as Spanish settlers. Though outwardly Catholic due to forced conversions, many still practiced Judaism in secret, a phenomenon so large that the practitioners came to be known as “Marranos.”

Immigrants from the Caribbean brought open Jewish practice to the country in the 18th century, though it took awhile to be legalized. Jew-immigration started en mass in the 20th century, first by Sephardim from Spain and North Africa, and then by Ashkenazim fleeing Hitler.

Antisemitic attacks are a problem in Colombia, not because of the Catholic history and culture of the country, but because of the Jews’ largely well-off socio-economic status. Twenty Jews have been kidnapped in the last decades, including more violent attacks, which leaves the community dwindling. Most have left for the United States; the 4,200 who remain largely live in Bogota.

Intermarriage rates are low, though the community is largely unreligious. Still, you can find lists of Columbian Jewish resources here, here and even here!

Peace Corps

The Peace Corps, which entered its 50th year of service this year, has undoubtedly attracted a number of Jewish volunteers. Volunteerism is a big to-do in the Jewish community; in fact just recently, Repair the World released a study on volunteering trends in the young Jewish adult community.

Highlighted here are some individual stories…last November/December, DC-based Moment Magazine published an essay by Carl Hoffman, detailing how his Peace Corps stint in the 1980s led him to embrace the Jewish Philippines community (full disclosure: I helped fact check this publication). Across the country in Los Angeles, The Jewish Chronicle profiled Lillian Mizrahi in February, a current Peace Corps volunteer in the small but significant bracket of participants over the age of 50. She is currently serving in Macedonia, and has also become part of the Jewish community there.

Rhythm and Blues

Jews have a long history of writing music that, stereotypically speaking, wouldn’t seem culturally appropriate. Take, for example, the large number of Christmas classics penned by members of the tribe. 😛

Rhythm and Blues, aka R&B, has undergone many changes in the past several decades, but is largely seen as an African American variety of music.

One such “Jewish crossover” was Jerry Leiber, fellow Heeb from my hometown of Baltimore, who was inspired by the music of his African American neighbors. He’s responsible for hits such as “Hound Dog.” Tablet Magazine has a blues-and-rhythms rendition of the song, as sung by Big Mama Thornton and predating the Elvis version.

In 1997, Leiber offered this cultural connection to The Baltimore Sun:

Leiber…said he learned only recently that his father had sung at synagogues in the family’s native Poland. He said traditional Jewish music shares many traits with rhythm and blues. “Listen to any cantor, any good hazan, sing and you can hear a little bit of Ray Charles going on,” he said.

The Folklife Festival runs from June 30-July 4 and July 7-11.

(read last year’s coverage here!)


3 thoughts on “The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Culture in Unusual Places

  1. Pingback: The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Culture in Unusual Places | JewishDC

  2. Pingback: The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Culture in Unusual Places | JewishDC

  3. Pingback: The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Culture in Unusual Places | JewishDC

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