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.

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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 Lake Success (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!

DC Chanukah Happenings 5779!

Chanukah Menorah/ photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The winter holidays are upon us, and Chanukah is on the early side this year! The holiday begins on the evening of December 2 and it lasts until December 9. It’s almost time to fry those latkes and kindle the menorah lights! Check out these local events happening around town, and feel free to add more in the comments. Chag Sameach!

Wednesday, November 28
Hipster Hanukkah Holiday Market
Etsy in real life, plus other fun things!
6:30 pm, Foundry United Methodist Church

Sunday, December 2
Celebrate Chanukah with Makers Day at the J
Children’s crafting event for the holiday!
10 am, Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia

Make Room for the Latkes 2018
Family fun event with a focus on interfaith families!
10:30 am, Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital

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

Monday, December 3
Family Chanukah Party
Candle lighting, holiday food, story time and crafts!
5:30 pm, Bender JCC

Wednesday, December 5
Light up the Night! Community Menorah Lighting
Light candles, sing songs, enjoy entertainment!
5:30 pm, Mosaic District

Hanukkah Happy Hour (Off) the Hill: Time Hop Edition
Annual young adult soiree with an ‘80s/’90s theme, drinks, food specials and surprises. Plus a clothing drive!
6 pm, Decades

My So-Called Jewish Life
Not entirely Chanukah-related, but the 10th annual presentation of autobiographical stories from Story District.
7:30 pm, Sixth & I

Thursday, December 6
Oh Gaydel, Oh Gaydel!
Celebrate the holiday with the LGBTQ Jewish community!
6 pm, Pitchers DC

Sunday, December 9
Hadar: Beyond the Chanukkiah
Morning workshops on various aspects of Jewish education around the holiday.
10 am, the Broadmoor

Sunday, December 16
Zemer Chai Holiday Concert
According to their website, this festival of lights will be filled with songs of justice, compassion and freedom of religion
6 pm, Kennedy Center

Israeli Award-Winning Film Explores Forbidden Love in Cloistered Community

“Red Cow” movie poster / courtesy of the Israel Film Fund

Despite the first snow and sleet of the season, a full house of Washingtonians gathered at Bethesda Row Cinema last Thursday night for a showing of the Israeli film Red Cow. The movie was aired as part of the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center’s Washington Jewish Film Festival Year-Round Program. It was co-presented by Tagg Magazine and Reel Affirmations.

“Red Cow” (or “Para Aduma” in Hebrew) is named for the biblically heralded red heifer which portends a return to Jewish temple worship in the Holy Land. The movie opens when a fundamentalist religious group finds a cow that fits that description and assigns main character, Benny (Avigayil Koevary) with taking care of her.

Benny’s father Yehoshua (Gal Toren) is the leader of a gated community in East Jerusalem, which prays for a return to ancient Jewish life. He relies heavily on his only daughter, and seeming family after his mother’s death, but Benny feels alienated from his beliefs. The film chronicles her sexual awakening as she gets involved with new girl Yael (Moran Rosenblatt.)

Like most foreign films, at least in my limited experience, this hour and a half long feature is a very minimalist affair. Though Yehoshua quotes Scripture and argues with other religious men about politics, he never has a speech where he declares “Welcome to my compound! Here are the rules!” Deference from other characters points him as the leader, and he seems to be in charge of a school for girls. Otherwise, Benny spends her time praying with him when he can’t find a minyan and grabbing him from an ancient mikveh late at night.

The East Jerusalem landscape feels larger than life with its expansive views of ancient structures and roadways, and its audio populated by the muzzein and quickly chanted Hebrew prayer. Certainly lends to the air of conflict, as does Yehoshua trying to force entrance into the Temple Mount on Yom Kippur, and speaking blithely about destroying the Dome of the Rock and the people who must die to bring about his fundamentalist utopia.

But it’s such a personal story without any real threat that the man mostly comes off as cold, sad and awkward as his daughter’s indiscretions come to light. Again, it’s more about what he intuits from interpersonal scenes than any big revelations. Benny and Yael’s love affair is fast and viscerally shot. The relationship carries no dramatic climax cast to a cinematic score. One might even say that Benny’s relationship with the young cow brings more emotional gravitas. But the question of who she really is remains at the forefront of her troubled existence, even when the final scene takes her to the secular world.

Red Cow was nominated this year for 4 Ophirs (the Israeli Oscars) and it won for best feature and best actress for Avigayil Kovary. It is also Tsivia Barkai Yacov’s directorial debut, and is just recently making its rounds in the United States. Click here for more information. And you can find my similar content and movie reviews under the Books, Plays, Music and Movies tab!

Gary Shteyngart Tackles Hedge Fund Manager Culture in LAKE SUCCESS

Gary Shteyngart reads from his novel, “Lake Success.” / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

For the first time in a long while, I made my way over to Sixth & I Historic Synagogue Tuesday evening to hear a Politics & Prose book talk by novelist Gary Shteyngart. His latest, Lake Success, is a study on the dudebro culture of hedge fund managers (link to book trailer starring Shteyngart and actor Ben Stiller.) Self-made character Barry Cohen abandons his family and his under-investigation business to take a trip cross-country to rekindle an old flame. Sitting in a synagogue, Steyngart described his protagonist with Yiddish attributes–he’s a schmuck (a jerk), a gonif (thief) and schnorer (beggar.) The book is a satirical take on this culture, set against the backdrop of the 2016 American presidential election.

Shteyngart is most well known for writing a book every four years that dips into his own heritage. Born in Leningrad to Jewish parents, he immigrated to America as a child. He grew up in New York, and specifically expanded his output due to hedge fund managers being the only people who can afford to live in Manhattan anymore.

He spoke briefly and then read a few long excerpts about Barry’s quick-lived “bromance” with a former employee, whom he then attempts to beg for money to fund the rest of his journey. The author describes himself as having no imagination, and he himself actually boarded a Greyhound bus for a four-month trip to middle America. He also spent time with hedge fund managers and their wives, one of whom called a school “diverse” because some of the students had doctors or lawyers for parents.

His comments were witty and engaging, and several people took to the mic to ask him about his other books or lessons learned on the road. He spoke of Greyhound bus drivers as drill sergeants who call the shots, except that passengers have to make sure they’re awake while driving at night. He also ran into “interesting” people, ranging from college students, ex-prisoners and hospital patients crossing state lines, to white supremacists who boarded and talked about “crucifying Muslims and Jews.” What stuck with Shteynart was how the Trump administration may have emboldened them to be more open, but also the majority of the bus, largely comprised of women and minorities, didn’t challenge them.

In terms of writing satire, he wanted to bring his flawed characters to a place where they could almost taste redemption, but then fall short. Seems like most people in attendance won’t “fall short” of reading it! (Maybe I should leave the comedy to him. :P) Following the hour-long discussion and q&a, Shteyngart signed several copies of his work. To purchase a copy of Lake Success (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!

A belated ringing in of 5779!

Adas Israel’s high holidays 5779 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:

  • Adas changed up some of the protocol on Rosh Hashanah–they encouraged all of us to clamor into Smith in order to hear the shofar for the first time. It was my first time in the main sanctuary for the morning of Rosh Hashanah Day 1, though I did have to leave afterwards to cede the space to reserved ticketeers. Then I went down to Kay Hall, where I usually spend the Torah service and musaf. But Smith is very much a part of my festivities on Rosh Hashanah Day 2. I joined the flash choir led by Cantor Brown yet again to sing Leonard Cohen’s rendition of Hal’lujah psalm as arranged by Elliot Z. Levine. For most of High Holidays, I admittedly feel like an invisible drop of water in a huge ocean. But RHD2 has become my chance to be proactively and publicly engaged with the holiday. I like the smaller, more intimate feel of the service, too.
  • Due to the weather–Hurricane Florence loomed heavily Rabbi Holtzblatt’s sermon–the usually outdoor “Return Again” Kol Nidre was moved indoors. I arrived maybe 10-15 minutes before the official start of the service, and spent ample time in lines that snaked through the parking lot before streaming into the building through the preschool entrance. I guess I got a feel for how large the parking lot actually is, because so far it accommodates everyone, I believe, who wants to attend this free event. Whereas this year I and others watched a broadcast from Smith in the “overflow” room of Kay. Proceedings were delayed until everyone was inside, making for a late but inclusive night. I’m starting to get used to the song melodies and instrumentation, and largely closed my eyes and swayed around a bit. In terms of kinetic spirituality, this was it.
  • This year’s Yom Kippur afternoon guests were podcasters and Adas members Alix Speigel and Hanna Rosin. Their show, Invisibilia, tracks specific stories and focuses on the human behaviors behind them. In conversation with Adas’s senior rabbis, they centered on themes of apology and forgiveness in the public sphere. This has long been an area of personal interest, as communities are starting to use social media to regulate “appropriate” responses to controversy and bad behavior–what these ladies referred to as “call out culture.” Where’s the line between sincerity/authenticity and a social totalitarianism? Beyond that, I enjoyed Rabbi Alexander’s sermon on self-forgiveness and how the idea might be implicitly referred to in sacred texts. He also taught us a niggun to sing as he read passages to invoke the feeling of ancient temple sacrifices. And the martyrology service was perhaps a little less communal than years past–no dittoes and group discussions–though one Adas member recounted for all of us his family’s tragic Holocaust story and it’s redemptive end. Followed by a moving a acapella piece by our annual singing quartet about finding faith even in the darkness. A nice way to start the new year off on the right foot.

What were your favorite experiences of High Holidays 5779? Feel free to share in the comments!

Sukkot continues through Sunday, Sept 30, followed by Simchat Torah in October! Check out what local synagogues are up to by clicking here.