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

Sunday, February 25

Adat Shalom A Colorful Purim: Purim Carnival

Congregation Beth Emeth Purim Palooza in Northern Virginia

Washington Hebrew Congregation Not Your Ordinary Hamentaschen

Wednesday, February 28

Temple Shalom Wizard of Oz of Purim

Purim gets Wild at Adas Israel!

Tikvat Israel Purim Puppet Show

Sixth & I Grogger and Glow: A Purim Celebration

Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim Pirate Purim

Commemorate MLK Weekend 2018 and Tu B’Shevat 5778 in DC!

Image courtesy of Open Clip Art

Happy 2018! As this is my first post of the year, I thought I’d share a few stats from 2017. According to WordPress, JewishDC got 1,648 views and 1,173 visitors, with the largest numbers coming from the US, Israel, the UK, Canada, India and Germany. Wow! My most popular post of the year was Local Writers Explore the Theme of Unexpected Journeys at the 2017 DC Jewish Literary Festival.

Thanks so much for your support, everyone, and I look forward to a fruitful new secular year! Let’s get into some holidays and community service.

In mid to late January we have one secular and one religious holiday crop up in our midst–MLK Weekend goes from Jan 13-15 and Tu B’Shevat occurs between Jan 30 and 31. Check out ways to get involved with the local community! Note: some events may be sold out.

Please feel free to add more events in the comments.

MLK Weekend

  • Sixth & I’s Visions of Freedom and Justice. In conjunction with Turner Memorial AME church and featuring their two choirs. Also focusing on the work of Civil Rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
  • Washington Hebrew Congregation’s MLK Shabbat and Dinner. Hosting partner churches and mosques, meant in part to honor the memories of social activists Rev Lewis Anthony and Rev Morris Shearin, Jr. Service featuring some of those who protested in 1960 at the segregated Glen Echo Amusement Park.
  • Adas Israel’s Weekend of Tikkun Olam. Featuring a Friday night Return Again Shabbat Service, dinner and a Saturday morning service with guests from the Howard University Gospel Choir and speaker Angela King, cofounder of Life After Hate.
  • Also check out Monday Days of Service with the EDCJCC!

Tu B’Shevat

  • EDCJCC’s family event, Jan 28, 10:30 am.
  • Sixth & I is offering both yoga (Jan 27, 11 am) and a seder! (Jan 30, 6:30 pm)

DC Chanukah Happenings 5778!

Dreidels in Israel / photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The multi-holiday season is upon us; weather is unseasonably warm, and people are counting the days, if they’re not there already, until they get a little time off from work or school. It’s time to fry those latkes and kindle the Chanukah lights! Local Jewish groups are rolling out the red carpet for this well-known Jewish holiday, which will take place this year from sundown Dec. 12 to sundown Dec. 20. Check these out! Feel free to add more in the comments, and chag sameach.

EDCJCC Chanukah Celebration 2017
Family friendly event, featuring a moon bounce, games, crafts, treats and more.
Sunday, December 10, 10 am, EDCJCC

Chanukah at the Ellipse
American Friends of Lubavitch starts off the holiday season with this annual ceremony on the White House lawn.
Tuesday, December 12, 4 pm, the Ellipse

Hanukkah Happy Hour (off) the Hill: Time Hop
This time-honored young adult party, still being sponsored by numerous local Jewish organizations, is moving to Decades and taking on a time travel theme!
Wednesday, December 13, 6 pm, Decades

Chanukah Community Candle Lighting
Family and all-abilities friendly event, featuring menorah lighting, dreidel spinning, latkes, donuts, games and more.
Wednesday, December 13, 6:30 pm, EDCJCC

Festival of Mics: A Chanukah Celebration
Karaoke night for young professionals with Chanukah drinks, a craft-your-own latkes bar and more!
Saturday, December 16, 8 pm, Sixth & I

I Have a Little Dreidel: An LGBTQ Family Chanukah Celebration
A chance to connect with similar families and explore Chanukah with personalized dreidels and more!
Sunday, December 17, 2 pm, EDCJCC

Zemer Chai Chanukah Concert
Choral arrangements, including Judas Maccabeus by Handel and holiday music from all around the world. The choir is joined by the Symphony of the Potomac.
Sunday, December 17, 4:30 pm, B’nai Israel Congregation

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!