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/

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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!

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.

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