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.

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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.

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!

Silent Film Comes Alive with Accompaniment as part of the Washington DC Jewish Music Festival

Musicians Gabriel Thibaudeau and Devon Oviedo after performing live accompaniment to the silent film, “Humoresque” / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Literature, film and music combined on Sunday afternoon, the last day of the 19th annual Washington, DC Jewish Music Festival. In partnership with AFI, the festival hosted a screening of Humoresque, the 1920 silent film based on a short story of the same name by Fannie Hurst.

Canadian composer and pianist Gabriel Thibaudeau was joined by local violinist Devon Oviedo for the performance. Thibaudeau explained in a short q & a afterwards that he had his grandmother in mind as he cobbled together the score from popular music from the time. Principal among that was the song that the story was named after–Humoresque by Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák. In addition, he used the beginning of Kol Nidre, the liturgy that begins the Yom Kippur holiday, which was also part of the plot.

The story involves the son of a Jewish family living in the New York tenements around the beginning of the 20th century. He begs for an expensive violin for his birthday, which his mother indulges, much to his father’s chagrin. But ten years later, the boy, Leon, is living his ma’s dream by being internationally famous. The family moves out of the slums and onto Fifth Avenue. Leon even begins courting a girl from the neighborhood with a similar trajectory. But just as his life seems to have hit its stride, the Great War starts and he feels compelled to enlist. The written story ends on an ambiguous note, with Leon playing the happy and sad “Humoresque” before reporting for duty. The movie extends beyond that to give a more conclusive ending.

I loved the acting in the movie, particularly that of the mother, Sarah Kantor as played by Vera Gordon. At one point we could see a tear staining her eye, so the cinematography is also commendable. I like how, in the tenements, which the movie just went ahead and called “the Ghetto,” everyone looked much more traditional with their house dresses, and caftans and yarmulkes for the men. We even got to see Abrahm Kantor kiss his mezuzah and Sarah visit the synagogue. But once they made it big, it was all evening gowns and tuxedos and slicked back hair. It reminded me of reading a novel with similar rags-to-riches Jewish characters in the 1930s, called Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown.

But the narrative cards in the film were much more melodramatic. Much better was when it stuck to the comedic and anxious dialogue of the characters. Otherwise I found myself missing Hurst’s complex descriptions of life, like:

Beneath where even in the August noonday, the sun cannot find its way by a chink, and babies lie stark naked in the cavernous shade. Allen Street presents a sort of submarine and greenish gloom, as if its humanity were actually moving through a sea of aqueous shadows, faces rather bleached and shrunk from sunlessness as water can bleach and shrink. And then, like a shimmering background of orange-finned and copper-finned marine life, the brass-shops of Allen Street, whole rows of them, burn flamelessly and without benefit of fuel.

I also noticed how the love interest was delegated from a singer in her own right to a generic side character, though I suppose that would have been a distracting subplot in the film. The adaptation also changed the reason why the Kantors fled Russia—because of anti-Jewish pogroms—to the more universal idea of cruel autocracy, which spurred America’s involvement in the War. Then again, I was surprised that parts of this 1920 film could be so blatantly Jewish in the first place.

The modern musical addition, however, left nothing to be desired. It flowed so seamlessly into the emotions portrayed on screen that I could hardly consider the film existing without it. I did enjoy a few little flourishes, like Oviedo’s bad violin playing for kiddie Leon and later for his nephew, and Thibaudeau’s trill on the piano when Abrahm tugged Leon’s ear. Quite the enjoyable performance.

Though the music festival has concluded, AFI’s Silent Cinema Showcase will continue through November 26. Click here for more information. And check out my past coverage of the Washington DC Jewish Music Festival under the “annual events” tab.

A belated ringing in of 5778

A quick and hungry crowd at Adas Israel’s break fast! / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Even Simchat Torah is behind us now, but I’ve had some personal things keeping me away from the computer. My cat was sick throughout the High Holidays and she died shortly thereafter.

Worry for her clouded my experience this year, but there were still some other highlights of note. Including:

  • I sang again on Rosh Hashanah Day 2 with the Adas Israel flash choir! We covered Leonard Cohen’s Hal’lujah psalm as arranged by Elliot Z. Levine and this new-to-us version of Sim Shalom (though that’s not us in the video; alas, we didn’t do harmony!)
  • Rabbi Steinlauf delivered his final Yom Kippur sermon at Adas; a powerful number about the “idolatry” of scientific truth-denial and privileging narrow ideas over broad-minded empathy towards everyone. He concluded to a standing ovation.
  • With more direct mentions to President Trump, Adas’s Yom Kippur afternoon talk featured Dana Bash from CNN and Judy Woodruff from PBS NewsHour in conversation with writer and editor Frank Foer. They talked about what it’s like, as reporters, to deal with an administration that so blatantly turns to falsehoods, and they also gave personal and general advice about how the media could do better to understand “flyover country.” In response to a question about touting some more optimistic news, Dana Bash teased this project, leading newly minted co-Senior Rabbi Aaron Alexander to call his fellow co-Senior Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt “a badass woman of Washington.” 😛

What were some of your highlights from these High Holidays and the other fall holidays? Here’s to hoping, in my case, that the rest of 5778 is a little more life-affirming.

Author Event at East City Bookshop: Gabrielle Zevin Fictionalizes a Lewinsky-like Scandal in YOUNG JANE YOUNG

Gabrielle Zevin holds up her novel at an East City Bookshop reading / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

As we’re gearing up for High Holidays (I had to dash to this event right after an Adas Israel flash choir rehearsal myself) author Gabrielle Zevin spoke to a dozen or so people at East City Bookshop about her book that reflects on the lives of women.

The event for Young Jane Young started at 4 pm yesterday afternoon at the Capitol Hill indie bookstore, with Zevin first reading some prepared remarks and novel excerpts, and then turning it over to some enthusiastic questions and book signings.

Surely politics makes a good subject for her first book event in DC. :p. Zevin talked about being inspired to write this novel while witnessing responses to Hilary Clinton during the primaries; she read her final proofs around Election Day. The book more or less centers around the character of Aviva Grossman, who like Monica Lewinsky, is an intern who ends up sleeping with her powerful boss. Zevin calls these events a “sexist scandal” rather than a “sex scandal,” for the way that these mistakes can end up ruining the lives of women, who are blamed for being instigators.

Twenty years ago, Zevin claimed, she followed suit by blaming Lewinsky and believing the popular narrative that a young intern could seduce the powerful and charismatic former president of the U.S., Bill Clinton. She went through events in her own life when she brushed up against sexism, like when she was running for office in grade school and someone called her a “dyke” for wearing a suit, just like all of the boys did. But it was only when her previous novels were labeled as the diminutive “women’s fiction,” (to which there is no male counterpart) did she start calling herself a feminist.

I’m not solely covering this event here because of its feminist issues, of course; the characters in the novel are also largely Jewish. It’s told from several perspectives, featuring ladies of all ages, and in Aviva’s mother’s section, the woman has to endure a male of the tribe kvetching about how Aviva is “a little zaftig” and otherwise a disgrace to the Jewish people. Aviva, like her author, grew up in Boca Raton, Fla., an area so heavily populated by Jews that Zevin claims it took her until young adulthood to realize how small an American minority she belonged to.

Obviously sexism isn’t just a Jewish problem, but I’m looking forward to reading the book with a particular eye to how it affects part of our community. And for a locally written review, check out the double print/video one by Ron Charles, editor of The Washington Post’s Book World, by clicking here!