“Fig Tree” Shines Light on Jewish Ethiopia, Blends Adolescent Intrigue with National Tragedy

Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe) and Eli (Yohanes Muse) in the titular fig tree / photo courtesy of Menemsha Films

Israel has long been seen as a refuge for world Jewry. In Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian’s feature debut, she moves away from the Ashkenazim, Sephardim and Mizrahim of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and focuses the attention on Ethiopian Jews.

Fig Tree aired between Nov. 1 and 14 in the newly constructed Cafritz Hall movie theater as part of the Edlavitch Washington, DC Jewish Community Center’s JxJ yearlong programming. A loosely autobiographical story, it concerns itself with teenage Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe), a Jewish girl trying to save her Christian boyfriend Eli (Yohanes Muse) from army conscription while her own family attempts to flee to Israel.

The year is 1989 and civil war has been ranging in Ethiopia for all of Mina’s lifetime. Young men and boys are dragged off of streets and out of schools while men with megaphones yell propaganda about how they should be proud to serve their country. Eli often finds refuge in the titular fig tree, where he and Mina both play and flirt with more mature desires.

Asmamawe’s performance is the most evocative part of this piece, as she ranges between subterfuge and terror when it comes to the external army-driven plot, and mischievousness and betrayal when it comes to her personal plot. One of the most arresting smaller moments of the film was when she pressed down on the dial tone while on the phone with her erstwhile Ethiopian-Israeli mother, still pretending to speak to her for her grandmother’s benefit.

Mina’s grandmother (Weyenshiet Belachew) is a formidable lady, running a weaving business that gets the attention of much wealthier clients. She also takes Eli and his mother in under her wing, and spearheads the covert operation that will reunite her and her grandchildren with her children in Israel. This requires handing off money to a travel agent/extortionist who may or may not place Eli with a Jewish family to secure his own trip there.

I’ve watched a fair amount of foreign and indie films throughout the years, and I expect to see a degree of minimalism. But Davidian straddles the line, given the geopolitical backdrop and sense of urgency to the piece. She doesn’t give into an overwrought Hollywood musical score, but foreboding dreams and a fair share of violence makes this film feel more familiar to me as an American viewer.

Said politics, it should be noted, are not explained in much detail. We the audience are not given a crash course in Ethiopia’s history or Israel’s covert actions there (Davidian and her family were airlifted in Operation Solomon in 1991.) But one hardly needs it to empathize with the sense of danger present on screen.

It’s a very dark film, including with reference to physically amputated and mentally traumatized soldiers. But it doesn’t lack a certain hope in striving for a better future, either. Davidian returned to Ethiopia in 2016 to film with local actors in this beautiful African cultural landscape.

Fig Tree was nominated for 5 Ophirs (the Israeli Oscars) and it won for best cinematography. It also swept up awards at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. Click here for more information. And you can find my similar content and movie reviews under the Books, Plays, Music and Movies tab!

A Belated Ringing in of 5780!

Adas Israel “Pathways” High Holidays 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:

  • Joining the flash choir, led by Cantor Brown, has become a Rosh Hashanah Day 2 staple for me. So much so that I am now a “veteran alto” when it comes to singing Leonard Cohen’s rendition of Hal’lujah psalm as arranged by Elliot Z. Levine. We get new members every year, and very little time to practice because the Cantor is busy preparing services for all of the Holy Days! I got to help my fellow altos find their place. Felt good to be giving back.
  • We were back outside for the “Return Again” Kol Nidre service–and I even found a seat! :0 I kid you not when I say hundreds of people were in attendance at the Adas Israel parking lot for the alternative musical service led by Rabbis Holtzblatt and Krinsky. Featuring such sundries as belting “Adon Olam” to the tune of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” at the end! But my favorite part was watching the full moon drift in and out of the clouds above the stage. Added quite the sense of majesty.
  • The Yom Kippur afternoon guest speaker this year was Supreme Justice Elena Kagan–and I’ve never seen the Smith Sanctuary so full, even for RBG! (At least I got a seat that year!) But Kagan was worth balancing on my heels for, as she talked about her Jewish upbringing, eccentric legal jobs and Supreme Court junior justice hazing. 😛 She was also an advocate for compromise in our politically polarized times, and stressed that the justices don’t spend their time in enmity. (Also, when they did disagree, it’s on a more personal level than “Democrats” vs “Republicans.”) Powerful message…though later, when I heard some congregants gush about her speech, they added the caveat that they hoped Kagan could curb the “yahoos” of the court. 😛 Part of me agrees with them…part of me thinks we all missed the message of her talk!

What were your favorite experiences of High Holidays 5780? Feel free to share in the comments!

Sukkot continues through Sunday, Oct 20, followed by Simchat Torah on the 21st! Check out what local synagogues are up to by clicking here.

Theater J Opens 2019/2020 Season with Sensual Musical “Love Sick”

Members of the cast and crew of “Love Sick” discuss the musical with its audience / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

The Song of Songs was put to new music in the Theater J east coast premiere, “Love Sick.”

Named for the quote “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, what will ye tell him? That I am love-sick” (Song of Songs 5:8), the play, written by Ofra Daniel and co-composed with Lior Ben-Hur, spins a metaphysical tale about a dissatisfied married woman, Tirzah, who starts receiving love letters and finds her own sexuality.

It starts in what could be modern-day Tel Aviv; the cast is dressed in contemporary apparel. The bedraggled Tirzah (Ofra Daniel) reminisces about her love life in Jerusalem. As the narrative progresses, Tirzah slowly strips down to undergarments, and the dancing becomes more sensual and self-assured.

Though Sasha Olinick plays “The Husband” and Ali Paris plays “The Lover,” there’s undertones that Tirzah is really falling in love with herself, or maybe it’s the idea of love that gives her confidence. “The Women of Jerusalem” (Sarah Corey, Sarah Laughland, Kara-Tameika Watkins and Kanysha Williams) play the Chorus, passing judgment but sometimes lending support to the rest of the cast.

I found their harmonies to be impressive and haunting. The instrumentation didn’t drown out any of the singers, and it added diverse undertones, from Latin music to Middle Eastern. Hebrew and Biblical quotations are peppered into the lyrics, adding historical weight.

I also liked all of the choreography, particularly when the Women of Jerusalem danced around Tirzah with scarves. With so many people often on stage—up to seven actors and eight musicians—it was a true juggling act!

The ending feels a little sad, as we know Tirzah will ultimately abandon love and turn into the bedraggled woman from the beginning. But the audience in the cast talk back session of Sept. 11 was more interested in the true identity of the lover. Poignant to current events, the role of the lover is played by Paris, a Palestinian, while Daniel is Israeli.

Daniel pointed out that in her first iteration of “Love Sick,” she played all three roles of Tirzah, husband and lover, further lending credence to my self-love theory. But I like that the play has expanded to multi-cast; the other actors and musicians make this world feel expansively lush. Kudos as well to the crew for all of the moody lighting. I’m not sure what all the fog and the jungle sounds in the beginning were all about, but that’s okay! 😛 The tree provided a nice platform for the lover to ascend and play his music, on the harpsichord-like Middle Eastern qanun, down to Tirzah.

“Love Sick” will be running at the bright and newly renovated Edlavitch DCJCC until Sept. 29. You can buy your tickets here!

Jewish Artifacts at the National Museum of American History

Textbook and scrabble game / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

It’s been a slow mid-summer month for me. In lieu of attending any events, I decided to check out the the National Museum of American History! There’s plenty of local places to find Jewish history, if you just know where to look!

I started with the exhibit Many Voices, One Nation. American Jews stood out in a case about “resisting assimilation.” It includes this Hebrew scrabble game and a textbook.

Statue of Liberty menorah / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

My favorite find came from American Democray: A Great Leap of Faith. I love this gaudy menorah with Statue of Liberty candle holders, made in 1986 to commemorate the country’s centennial. For more information on this object, click here!

I also had a soft spot for the “courting ethnic diversity” Hebrew Barack Obama pin. 😛

American Jews featured prominently in Giving in America, too! The exhibit showcased a 1990s Jewish National Fund tzeddakkah box, as well as a Purim collection charity plaque.

I just took a swift, hour-long walk through the museum earlier this week. You should check it out yourself–for Jewish and broader American artifacts. Remember, too, that along with permanent exhibitions, special ones open regularly, too! So there’s always something new to find. Take advantage of this free resource–and get out of the heat. 😛

For more information on the National History Museum’s Jewish resources, click here!

As 2019 Smithsonian Folklife Festival Celebrates Local Music, Nefesh Mountain Brings Jewish Bluegrass to DC

Nefesh Mountain performs at Adas Israel / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Normally this is the time of year when I write out a little something about the Jewish history of the countries being honored at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. But the Folklife Festival is doing things a little differently in 2019.

For one weekend (this one) only, they are staying close to home with programming and performances to honor the DC music scene. Titled “The Social Power of Music,” the event plans to “celebrate the power of music to entertain, educate, inspire, preserve history, strengthen identity, and build community,” according to the website.

So I had to go back to the drawing board to think up a Jewish angle on this. 😛 But it also felt like something was staring me in the face. Music plays a big part in lots of Jewish DC organizational programming. Back in May, I highlighted klezmer bands playing Yiddish cinema music as part of the EDJCC’s inaugural JxJ festival. Then, just last Shabbat, the bluegrass (or “jewgrass”) band Nefesh Mountain played and workshopped at Adas Israel.

I attended their post-Shabbat concert, along with dozens of other people, on Saturday night. Melding bluegrass instrumentals and vocals with Jewish influences, they sang originally produced songs off of their new album such as “Bound for the Promised Land” (with new biblical allusions) and “Eretz Reel” (an amusing play on words.) They also played the haunting “Tree of Life,” written in response to the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre last year, with lyrics available for free on their website. Samples of their music are also available on their YouTube channel.

Husband and wife team Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff provided main instrumentals and vocals, with regular band members Alan Grubner and David Goldenberg joining them on fiddle and mandolin. By the end of the concert, people were dancing around the room, and then the group led us in a soulful Havdalah to officially end Shabbat and welcome in the new week.

It’s heartening to know how Jewish groups can find a home in American music while still honoring our shared roots. Hence drawing back to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival–culture through hybrid sound and diversity. For more on the Folklife Festival, taking place tomorrow and Sunday, click here! They should be back to their more traditional programming in 2020.

Edlavitch DCJCC Unveils New JxJ Festival with Hybrid Events incl. Music from Yiddish Cinema

New festival’s logo plays over the AFI Silver screen / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

The Edlavatich DCJCC wrapped up its inaugural JxJ arts project yesterday, a two and a half week mashup of their film festival, music festival and “hybrid” cultural events.

I decided to attend one of these hybrid events last Thursday evening, when Isle of Klezbos and Metropolitan Klezmer performed Music from Yiddish Cinema at AFI Silver Theater. The event included vintage film clips, mostly from the 1930s, as well as live accompaniment.

More accurately, the band performed personalized renditions of various songs featured in Yiddish films. These included a mournful ensemble quartet in Yidl Mitn Fidl and the more upbeat wedding song from Uncle Moses, among others. I usually found their pieces to be more jazzy than the originals; featuring more instruments, like drums and the piano, and fewer staccato notes. It was a fascinating dive into the evolution of musical expression. And the group had a great fusion sound, too!

Percussionist and film archivist Eve Sicular also shared insights into the subtext of various musical clips, for example pointing out the influence of tuberculosis in one of Molly Picon’s Mamele numbers, and the inside references to homosexuality in Americaner Shadchen. She also detailed highlights–some known and some suppressed by the Soviet Union–of Russian-Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels. But with the event spanning almost three hours by that point–and on a weekday night no less–a little tedium started to settle in as Sicular read long excerpts from a memoir on the subject. Several people in the audience left early. But before that there was clapping and laughter in response to both these clips and the live music.

Overall, Music from Yiddish Cinema opened the door to the complexities of this genre, and served as a reminder that the past was as vivacious and full of life as the present. For more of a taste of this musical group’s hybrid flavor, click here!

Historian Deborah Lipstadt Tackles Modern-Day Antisemitism in Book Touted at Sixth & I

Deborah Lipstadt in conversation with Rabbi Shira Stutman at Sixth & I / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

The lower half of the sanctuary was filled on Tuesday evening as readers stepped into Sixth & I Historic Synagogue from the rain to hear Deborah Lipstadt talk about her new book, Antisemitism: Here and Now.

In conversation with Sixth & I’s senior rabbi, Shira Stutman, Lipdstadt touched upon the long provenance of antisemitism, which found its way into Christianity’s earliest texts, to more modern interpretations. But much of this established hatred, she assessed, remains rooted in conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the world.

Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust historian currently teaching at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., is perhaps best well known for her brush with David Irving, who sued her for libel in the UK for calling him a Holocaust denier. That experience led to her 2005 book, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, and a 2016 movie starring Rachel Weisz.

Her most recent book centers upon the conceit that she is addressing two individuals about antisemitism today—a Jewish student and a non-Jewish colleague. But the issues raised are based on real interactions, Lipdstadt asserts. The book cover focuses on the tiki torches wielded by white supremacists at a 2017 rally who, among other things, shouted antisemitic slurs. Then, when advance copies of the book were circulating, a white nationalist committed a massacre at a synagogue, in the largest single instance of violence against Jews on American soil.

Lipstadt described white nationalists of the far right believing in age-worn conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the world and working with Blacks to destroy the white race. Liberal billionaire George Soros, Lipstadt says, has emerged as the 21st century version of the Rothschilds.

On the other side of the political spectrum, some voices on the left see things through a particular prism of race and class. Since American Jews are seen as wealthy and white, the claim goes, they can’t actually be discriminated against. And any attempt to challenge this must be a cover up for something else. The relation to right-wing conspiracy theories grows starker in the midst of recent firestorm over Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar leaning into the notion that a Jewish lobby controls the government through money.

Lipstadt made it clear, in a 15-minute q&a session with the audience, that she wasn’t calling out specific leaders as antisemites. But giving voice to these conspiracy theories has broader repercussions, as the Tree of Life Synagogue proved. Lipstadt also touched upon BDS and a “myopic” focus on Israel’s faults, and she shared personal anecdotes, like a neighbor trying to get her daughter to come to terms with the fact that their shul needs police protection.

She also attempted to tell a few jokes, bittersweet as they were, like this one that she heard in the 1970s Soviet Union (to paraphrase): a shoe company gets a large shipment of shoes and a long line forms early on a cold morning. Later, the shopkeeper walks outside and says, “We are running out of shoes. All Jews must leave the line and go home.” So they do. Later, the shopkeeper reappears and says, “We are running out of shoes. All non-Party members must leave the line.” This exchange repeats a little later, with the shopkeeper asking those who didn’t serve in WWII to leave. Finally, they run out of shoes and turn away the elderly veterans. As these folks shuffle away, they proclaim: “those lucky Jews; they must have known what was coming!”

The problem with antisemitism, Lipstadt says, is the problem with most conspiracy theories. It is illogical, and attempts to counter it with facts only feeds into the narrative. But the Holocaust historian also urged the audience not to give into despair. Before giving way to the signing portion of the evening she talked about the last chapter in her book: “Oy versus Joy.” In this epistle to reject victimhood, Lipstadt hopes we take pride in our heritage and what we’ve given the world.

To purchase a copy of Antisemitism: Here and Now (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!