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.

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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.

DC High Holiday Classes and Events 5778

Apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah/ image courtesy of wikipedia

L’shanah tova! A new year will be upon us in under a month—and with that, my favorite holiday. 😀 Bring on the apples and honey!

For tickets, J-Connect has in depth detail concerning fees, schedules and more for DC and area MD and VA synagogues. Gather DC focuses more specifically on young adults, and has links to services and other activities to help this cohort connect.

Washington also offers classes and events to inform you and get you in the spirit of high holidays! I’ve gathered up a few offerings from Sixth & I and the Edlavitch DCJCC, JCCNV and the Bender JCC. Please leave others in the comments!


***

Wednesday, September 6
The Beauty of Sephardic High Holidays, 7:30 pm, Sixth & I
https://www.sixthandi.org/event/16737/

Thursday, September 7 and 14
Ten Steps Toward Teshuvah, 7:45 pm, Sixth & I
https://www.sixthandi.org/event/ten-steps-toward-teshuva/

Sunday, September 10
Repentance, Forgiveness, Personal Change: Entering the Days of Awe with Mechon Hadar, 2 pm, EDCJCC
http://thejdc.convio.net/site/Calendar/1163557695?view=Detail&id=153547

Sunday, September 10
Fall into the Holidays, 2 pm, JCCNV
http://www.jccnv.org/index.php?src=events&srctype=detail&category=Upcoming%20Events&refno=187939

Monday, September 11
Go Creative for the Jewish New Year!, 2 pm, JCCNV
http://www.jccnv.org/index.php?src=events&srctype=detail&category=Adults&refno=187988

Tuesday, September 12
High Holiday Sampler featuring Joan Nathan and her new cookbook, King Solomon’s Table, 7 pm, Bender JCC.
http://www.benderjccgw.org/event/high-holiday-sampler/

Wednesday, September 13 and 27
Take on Yom Kippur, 6 pm, Sixth & I
https://www.sixthandi.org/event/take-yom-kippur/

Sunday, September 17
Community Apple Picking, 1 pm, JCCNV
http://www.jccnv.org/index.php?src=events&srctype=detail&category=Upcoming%20Events&refno=187945

Wednesday, September 20 (Erev Rosh Hashanah)
Day of Awe-Some: Exploring Rosh Hashanah, 4 pm, EDCJCC
http://thejdc.convio.net/site/Calendar/1163557695?view=Detail&id=153548

Thursday, September 21 (Rosh Hashanah)
Apples and Honeys, 10 am, Bender JCC
http://www.benderjccgw.org/event/apples-honeys/

Sunday, September 24
Apples for Everyone, 11 am, EDCJCC
http://thejdc.convio.net/site/Calendar/932959594?view=Detail&id=153551

Saturday, September 30 (Yom Kippur)
I am Sorry Day, 10 am, Bender JCC
http://www.benderjccgw.org/event/im-sorry-day/

May you have a sweet new year!

Theater J’s “Broken Glass” Run Extended Until July 16!

The “Broken Glass” cast talks with Theater J staff about the play / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Today was supposed to be the last day that DC-area theater-goers could see “Broken Glass,” but now there’s a full new week of production! This is one of Arthur Miller’s last written plays (1995) and it centers around a group of American Jews reacting to Kristallnacht.

…well, kinda. Sylvia Gellburg (Lise Bruneau) loses the use of her legs after reading about and getting slightly wrapped up in the horrors happening in 1938 Germany. But she’s also dealing with a sexless marriage and falling in love with her doctor, Harry Hyman (Gregory Linington). Her husband, Phillip, (Paul Morella) struggles with wanting to assimilate in a world that still seems to infer that he’s an outsider.

I was reading a similar novel, The Houseguest by Kim Brooks, at the time, and in the midst of grappling with the difficulties in being objective with stories about the Holocaust. Every time Sylvia griped about something going on overseas that I knew was only the tip of the iceberg, and every time one of the men would attempt to contain her emotions as overwrought, I found myself getting frustrated. I tried to understand their worldview, and found it easiest to digest when characters would talk about America being seemingly different–a respite from a 2,000-plus year history of antisemitic persecution. And indeed perhaps in 1938, to the average American Jew, Kristallnacht felt like “just another pogrom.” Dr. Hyman had a nicely explored backstory in Heidelberg (where he got his medical degree due to Jewish quotas at U.S. universities), so we also got to see his grief and denial about what Germany was becoming. He was very astute about “the persecution complex,” and how everybody, Hitler above all, felt persecuted by others, but never turned the mirror on themselves.

But over all, I’m not sure that it fully works, juxtaposing these domestic dramas against Kristallnacht. It would be like a modern-setting play occasionally interrupting a monologue on a failed marriage with anecdotes from Syria.

I attended the play on June 29 because of the cast talkback session after the production. Among other topics discussed (like the intentionally ambiguous ending, complete with Phillip wearing concentration camp-striped pajamas) the actors mentioned how this play was Miller’s attempt to connect with his oft-ignored Jewish heritage. That in itself feels a little awkward to me–exploring your feelings of Jewish identity as an older man at the end of the 20th century through having characters react to Kristallnacht when it was still fresh. This isn’t The Crucible, where the Salem Witch Trials are allegorical for McCarthyism. This is about struggling with guilt concerning a very specific event in history, and I suppose I’m always a little disquieted by viewing the whole of Jewish identity through the Holocaust.

In technical terms, the play was very arresting. With only a few props on a minimalist set the actors took center stage, and their interactions were riveting whether played for comedy or drama. The production team worked with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to project period imagery onto the shattered glass background whenever there was a transition between scenes. Udi Bar-David played a haunting cello, and the cast confirmed that he performed original pieces, which were recorded at the University of Maryland.

All in all I think that it’s a play that you should judge for yourself; you can buy tickets here. Check out my past coverage of DC plays here!

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.