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.

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.

New Time and Place for the Washington, DC Jewish Music Festival

Jewish-East Asian fusion band Sandaraa performs at the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Jewish-East Asian fusion band Sandaraa performs at the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Although we just did this song and dance in June, the re-tooling of the Edlavitch Washington, DC Jewish Community Center has shifted some things around. The 18th annual music festival started on October 26; they’re also moving the film festival to May instead of the winter.

Similar to the event that I attended at the last music festival, the one last Tuesday was a double feature of a documentary and a stage act. Paul Thomas Anderson, famously known for such films as There Will Be Blood and Steel Magnolias, directs his first documentary—an unassuming, 54-minute accounting of musicians practicing their craft in an ancient fort in Rajasthan, India.

The 2015 film, Junun, follows Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood to southeast Asia for this collaboration project with the Indian ensemble, the Rajasthan Express. Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur rounded out the group and added some Hebrew influence to the music. I loved the notion that different people could share and transform their cultural expressions. It’s a hopeful message in and of itself about coming together in common purpose.

The documentary was recorded with occasional shaky cam and had little narrative structure; however it transcended any limitations by staying true to the emotionality of music. We laughed at the casual moments where the camera caught a musician picking his nose or making jokes about faulty electricity in India. But the real power came through juxtaposing images, like sweeping panoramas of the Indian environs or a pigeon roosting among the musical equipment, against the musical numbers. I heard people commenting on specific scenes after the film ended, to rancorous applause.

Following a brief intermission, we then listened to an hour and a half-long set, roughly, from the band Sandaraa. Like with the musicians in Junun, this band is a cultural collaboration, started by Pakistani vocalist, Zeb Bangash, and klezmer clarinetist, Michael Winograd. Most of their other band members hail from Brooklyn, many of whom have klezmer backgrounds. The music they played had a South Asian mentality, ranging from traditional folk songs to original compositions set to Urdu poetry, but some of the instrumentation hinted at Jewish influence.

The event went a little long—from 7:30 to 10 pm—and a sizeable portion of the audience left during the last half hour or so of Sandaraa’s performance. But the film and the music went so well together, thematically, that I understand why the festival paired them up. Perhaps it would have been better suited for a Sunday afternoon timeslot, though the house was packed at the EDCJCC either way.

The music festival ends on Nov 5 with another fusion project–Odessa/Havana. Check out my past coverage under the “annual events” tab.

A Belated Ringing In of 5777!

5777 break fast at Adas Israel / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

5777 break fast at Adas Israel / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

We may be most of the way through Sukkot now, but g’mar chatimah tova anyway. 😛 Hope you had a meaningful High Holiday season. Here are a couple of my highlights from Adas Israel:

  • I joined Adas Israel’s flash choir on Rosh Hashanah day 2 to sing a pretty, Hebrew, SATB-harmonized version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Hoping to do that again next year!
  • The “Return Again” Kol Nidre service was held in the parking lot rather than in front of the synagogue, to accommodate larger crowds. I found it a little more difficult to hear, but Rabbi Holtzblatt gave a good sermon about harnessing the evil inclination, yetzer hara and living with the good inclination, yetzer hatov.
  • Israeli settler Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and and Palestinian Ali Abu Awwad returned to Adas for the Yom Kippur afternoon talk to plug the Roots Project, an inter-communal nonviolence initiative in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria. Here at home, this program heralded in the iEngage Series, a set of Sunday classes concerning narratives about Israel, which will be led by Rabbi Steinlauf. The first event is on Oct. 30.

The EDCJCC has shifted its schedule a bit, and the 18th Washington Jewish Music Festival starts on the 26th. I’m excited, but guys…you’ll be rescheduling the Literary Festival (traditionally held around now) sometime soon, right? *puppy dog eyes* Ah well. At least I can always hole up in my sukkah with a good book. 😛

Simchat Torah begins on Monday evening! Check out what local synagogues might be doing by clicking here.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Life in Unusual Places

Basque synagogue in Bayonne / image courtesy of culturecommunicacion.gouv.fr

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 2016 they’ve been focusing on Basque, a country that spans between northern Spain and southwestern France.

Doubtless the Festival has done a great job in covering many aspects of this nation. 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.

Basque

The Jewish Encyclopedia details life for the Tribe in the Basque provinces of the middle ages, when they were under Spanish jurisdiction. Jews lived in Vitoria, the capital of the province of Alvira, and in 1203 were moved to a special street called “Calle Nueva” or “New Street.” They chiefly worked as moneybrokers, though in 1332, Alfonso XI of Castille issued a decree that forbade Jews to take promissory notes from their Christian neighbors. These antisemitic decrees continued into the fifteenth century. After August 21, 1482, Jews weren’t permitted to enter the Franciscan monastery until after mass. Later in the year, Christian girls and women were permitted from entering the Jewish ghetto without male accompaniment. They were also prohibited from acting as a Shabbes goy, that is, cooking or lighting fires for Jews when they couldn’t due to Shabbat restrictions. Jews were also forbidden from working publicly or in Christian homes on Christian holidays, and Christians were forbidden to sell fruit in the ghetto, take services with or live with Jews. Finally, in 1484, Jews were forbidden from reading ecclesiastical edicts or serving as lawyers in lawsuits.

All of this, of course, was leading up to the official Spanish expulsion of the Jews in 1492. On June 27 of that year, prominent Jews of Vitoria came before the city council on behalf of the Jewish community, and were granted their cemetery, “Judimendi,” (Jews’ hill) so long as they didn’t plow it. Jews left Vitoria and went to the neighboring province of Navarre and elsewhere. Vitoria took possession of their synagogue and turned it into a classical school. “Calle Nueva” briefly became known as “Calle de Puenta de Rey” (Kingsbridge Street.) A year later, Marranos (Christian converts who often secretly practiced Judaism) were ordered to leave this street and live among other Christians.

The Encyclopedia concludes that French Jews may now inhabit Basque. According to former Bilbao resident Joaquin Carlos Caraguegguie, the Inquisition didn’t really touch Basque and Jews have always lived there quietly among their Christian neighbors. He gave an interview to Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer of Travel-Watch, claiming there used to be 60,000 Jews in the region and now there are about 10,000. He described his post-war childhood religion as an open secret in his community, where he attended public schools taught by Jesuits and everyone knew he was Jewish. Their Jewish practice was pretty nil, but they were raised to believe that the Old Testament was “their” bible.

Caraguegguie maintains a Basque Jewish difference from the rest of Spain with this:

“You notice how noisy it is in the rest of Spain? Not here. You walk into a Basque bar, it’s ‘May I help you?’ People say if they raise their voices, someone will die. They are quiet and polite. That was how my family maintained their Jewishness — they kept quiet about it. We were always told ‘Don’t push it.’”

A couple of years ago, Karen Ginsberg wrote a piece for the Jewish Independent about her travels to Basque. At the Musée Basque et de l’histoire de Bayonne, there is a special exhibit on Jews in French Bayonne since 1600, where some settled after the Spanish Inquisition. The collection includes a portrait of Augusta Furtado, who, in the 17th century was prominent in the Jewish world and also served twice as the mayor of Bayonne. Other artifacts come from a private 19th century synagogue, and there is a January 19, 1753 document, which is about royal protective orders and purportedly uses the title “Jew” rather than “Portuguese” or “New Christian” for the first time.

Ginsberg found a synagogue in the heart of Bayonne, but it was unclear whether or not it was still in use. Neo-classical in style, it was meant to be a shift from private to public worship, with the inscription in Hebrew and French: My house will be marked as a house of prayer for all nations.

A small community by any standards; nevertheless, check out Wikipedia’s page of famous Basque Jews! 😛

Sounds of California

Since this is also a feature of the Folklife fest, I thought I might add some music based out of Jewish California to the list. 😛 By no means meant to be conclusive, heh. But I cover a variety of bases.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival continues until July 10. Check out my past coverage of Jewish life in unique places under the “Annual Events” tab.

Poetry and Song at the 2016 Washington, DC Jewish Music Festival

Basya Schechter claimed during Q&A that stanza D was one of her favorite passages in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s poetry collection / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

As Shavuot draws to a close, so does the 2016 Washington, DC Jewish Music Festival, ending tonight with an international Middle Eastern concert followed by discussions on art and peace in Israel.

Last Tuesday I attended a unique fusion event—the screening of a documentary followed by a musical performance and Q&A session. The documentary, Every Word Has Power, features a concert given by musician Basya Schechter, who set some of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Yiddish poetry to song. Film director David Vinik and producer Debra Gonsher Vinik also interviewed Heschel’s daughter and various other scholars.

Heschel’s poetry collection, The Ineffable Name of God, was only just recently translated and published, but he penned the pieces in the 1920s and ’30s, while he was still a doctoral candidate for philosophy at the University of Berlin. What I appreciated most about the poetry, and Schechter’s soulful interpretation, was moving past the image of Herschel as a monolith of social justice in his middle age. As a young man he expressed doubts and longings; the desire for faith and romantic love.

Schechter is the leader of the band Pharaoh’s Daughter, which blends Hassidic, Sephardic, Mizrahi and other Middle Eastern musical traditions together. (I first heard them play in the summer of 2003 at dusk in the hills of Southern California, which was aaaaawesome! :P) She performed a short set on her oud after the documentary screening, along with Tamer Pinarbasi on the Turkish quanun and Mat Tonti on strings. Tonti, a fan of Schechter’s of many years, reached out to her to play together this evening. Pretty cool!

I previously blogged about Pharaoh’s Daughter on JewishDC back in 2008. Check out my past coverage of the Washington, DC Jewish Music Festival under the “Annual Events” tab.

Theater J Puts on Original Adaptation of David Grossman’s “Falling Out of Time”

The cast of “Falling Out of Time” discusses the play / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Every year, I enthusiastically support the literary, film and music festivals put on by the DCJCC. I don’t however, patronize the theatre as much as I might like. Last Thursday provided me with an enticing opportunity, with the production of Falling Out of Time. I’ve had David Grossman’s novel, To The End of the Land, on my to-read list since copy-editing a review of it for Moment magazine. 😛 I’ll get to it eventually!

This production is pretty unique for Theater J since it’s an original. Associate Artistic Director Shirley Serotsky had the idea to adapt Grossman’s novel, to which he agreed, and playwright-director Derek Goldman wrote the screenplay. Jessica Cohen provided English translation for Grossman’s novels, both inspired, in part, by the death of his son in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict.

The story is meant to take various characters, all parents of deceased children, “out of time” and into a magical realist limbo. The staging also accomplished this for the audience, by seating some members on stage and some cast within the house. I was actually right behind Nanna Ingvarsson, who played the Chronicler’s Wife.

None of these characters had much by way of personal backstory, although we found out bits and pieces about the varied ways in which their children died. Going through the various stages of anger, grief and confusion, many in the group ultimately wandered throughout the theatre, looking for the “there” that might bring them back to their loved ones.

After the performance, various cast and crew came on stage to talk to the lingering audience about their consultations with Grossman, artistic choices, and a special event in conjunction with members of The Parents Circle. Members Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramin, amidst travels to the U.S., came to view the play in March.

The play felt rather repetitive and wearying to me, and there certainly wasn’t much room for levity. Occasional lines had sudden, startling impact; I think I agree with actor Joseph Mycoff, who said his favorite one regarded a father mentioning a son who died in August, ergo how could he move on to September? About a more specific tragedy, actress Erika Rose, while standing atop a looking tower, gave a haunting soliloquy to warfare, and the ways that spectators vs aggrieved family members view it.

Because of the minimalist props, some parts of the play didn’t translate as well for me. Near the end, the actors stripped down to veiny body suits near an unseen “wall” between the living and the dead, but it was only during the panel discussion that I came to understand that they were burying themselves in the earth. But other aspects were extremely well done, like the music and the staging; actors had to time their “aimless” steps around the theatre appropriately so that they could make their marks when they had to deliver their lines.

All in all, I would call the play a unique and arresting experience, which strips away traditional storytelling elements to focus on the strong emotions behind loss. The production continues until the 17th; you can buy tickets here.

And for more of my coverage of past Jewish plays in the DC area, check out The History of Invulnerability and Dai.