From Colonial Women to Ivy League Admissions; 2019 Jewish American Heritage Month

Labor Organizer Bessie Hillman, one of the Jewish women profiled in Nadell’s book / photo courtesy of Wikipedia

May is around the corner, and with it the 13th annual Jewish American Heritage Month! The official website has been updated with activities, resources and more.

The newly minted Capital Jewish Museum (formerly the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington) is teaming up with the National Archives to present this event:

America’s Jewish Women: A History From Colonial Times to Today
May 23, 7 pm
Historian and American University Professor Pamela Nadell will touch on the lives of a variety of Jewish American women, from Emma Lazarus to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as less recognized activists and allies.

Publisher’s Weekly wrote in it’s review of Nadell’s book:

It is easy to kvetch, but Nadell has taken on a big job in covering such a multidimensional, important subject. Nadell does it in informative and succinct style, and the result is a readable, valuable text.

Other events in the DC area include a May 6 book talk on “Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale” by Dr. Dan A. Oren at the Library of Congress and co-sponsored by The Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington. On May 24, Sixth & I and the National Museum of American Jewish Military History are reprising their Memorial Day Shabbat.

Please feel free to add any comments about other JAHM events happening in the area. Check out my past coverage of Jewish American Heritage Month under the “Annual Events” tab.

10th Anniversary of JewishDC!

Thank you to all the people who came to my blog in 2018 from across the world! / graphic courtesy of WordPress

Ten years ago in the summer, I had the idea that since I was attending a significant number of local Jewish events, I should do something with that. I was also fresh off of my journalism degree and I liked to write, and thus JewishDC was born!

Things have changed a little bit in the interim. Some organizations have come and gone. Just recently the (now named) Edlavitch Jewish Community Center announced that it’s doing away with it’s old, multiple festivals and creating a whole new huge one. So much to choose from, so little time!

I used to post weekly events updates, but now I leave most promotion to organizational twitters (you can see my aggregated list in the sidebar!) and the awesome GatherDC. I’m not really so much of a community organizer as I am one Jewish DCer, whose tastes have likely changed a bit from her twenties and into her thirties, documenting events I attend in the Greater Washington Area. For example, I now also look at our local indie bookstores, as well as Jewish institutions, when an author of the tribe comes into town!

You can find compiled lists of my reviews of literary, music, film and theater events here and here. I’m also thinking of making a new page for religious content. But for now I thought I’d go into my stats page and list my top ten review posts from 2009 to today.

I’m so glad that I started this project, that I have records of all these great events. And I can share what an inspiring town this is for celebrating Jewish culture! Happy new year, everyone, and may 2019 be great for Jews in DC.

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!

DC High Holidays Classes and Events 5779

Apple picking is a common tradition around Rosh Hashanah / image courtesy of GetDrawings.com

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, Jconnect 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, the Bender JCC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Lots of apple pickings this year. 😛 Please leave others in the comments!


Wednesday, September 5 and Wednesday, September 12
Hit Refresh: Preparing for the High Holidays, 7 pm, Sixth & I
https://www.sixthandi.org/event/hit-refresh-preparing-for-the-high-holidays/

Sunday, September 9
A Taste of Apples and Honey: Community Apple Picking, 2:30 pm, JCCNV
https://www.jccnv.org/index.php?src=events&srctype=detail&category=Adults&refno=188636
Days of Awe-some: Exploring Rosh Hashanah, 4 pm, EDCJCC
http://thejdc.convio.net/site/Calendar/625270278?view=Detail&id=154662

Wednesday, September 12
Rosh Hashanah Pick ‘n Picnic, 10:30 am, Bender JCC
https://www.benderjccgw.org/event/pick-n-picnic/

Thursday, September 13
Cheers to a Sweet New Year with Young Leadership Donors, 6:30 pm, JFGW
https://www.shalomdc.org/event/ylgivingthankyouevent/
The Unkosher Comedy Tour: Confessions, 7 pm, EDCJCC
http://thejdc.convio.net/site/Calendar?id=154677&view=Detail

Sunday, September 16
Pick with PJ: Apple Picking Event, 10 am, JFGW
https://www.shalomdc.org/event/pickwithpj/

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.

Interracial Protest During Maryland’s Segregation Featured for 2018 Jewish American Heritage Month

Members of the largely Jewish neighborhood of Bannockburn, Md, protested the Glen Echo Park segregation / photo courtesy of the Bannocburn Facebook page

May is around the corner, and with it the 12th annual Jewish American Heritage Month! The official website has been updated with activities, resources and more.

The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington is teaming up with the National Archives to present this event:

Panel Discussion abut the Glen Echo Protests
May 17, 7 pm
Filmmaker Ilana Tratchman, will discuss her work-in-progress Ain’t No Back to a Merry-Go-Round, about a 1960 interracial protest against a segregated park in Glen Echo, Md.

The Washington Post wrote this about the actively involved Bannockburn, Md. community in a 2010 article:

The neighborhood was founded by Jews, many of whom had escaped Europe during the Holocaust of World War II. The founders of what would become Bannockburn had difficulty finding land or financing because of deed covenants preventing Jews or other minority groups from being able to buy the property.

Other events in the DC area include a May 7 book talk on “Roads Taken: Jewish Peddlers and Their American Journey” by Prof. Hasia Diner at the Library of Congress and co-sponsored by The Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington. On May 25, Sixth & I and the National Museum of American Jewish Military History are reprising their Memorial Day Shabbat.

Please feel free to add any comments about other JAHM events happening in the area. Check out my past coverage of Jewish American Heritage Month under the “Annual Events” tab.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Life in Unusual Places

Irene Danner escaped to the circus after Kristallnacht / photo courtesy of Jewniverse

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 2017 is the 50th anniversary! :0 Instead of highlighting other countries, they’ve been focusing on circus arts and American immigration and migration.

Doubtless the Festival has done a great job in covering many aspects of these topics. But allow me to expand on their efforts! For the last several 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.

Jews and the Circus

From the earliest days of the circus, in Greco-Roman times, Jews had a relationship with them. Rabbinic ordinances in the Talmud go so far as to denounce circus attendance, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia:

He who frequents the stadia and the circuses, and sees there the magicians, the tumblers, the ‘buccones,’ the ‘maccus,’ the ‘moriones’ the ‘scurræ,’ and the ‘ludi sæculares’—this is ‘sitting in the seat of the scornful'” (Tosef., ‘Ab. Zarah, ii. 6: Yer. 40a, Bab. 18b; Yalḳ., Ps. 613).

However, even an important contributor to the Talmud, Rabbi Judah I, acknowledged some, er, “positive” aspects of the circus:

“We must thank the heathens that they let mimes appear in the theaters and circuses, and thus find innocent amusement for themselves, otherwise they would be constantly getting into great quarrels as soon as they had anything to do with one another” (Gen. R. lxxx. 1).

Fast forward to the 19th century, and the more modern rendition of the circus was sweeping over Europe. Aish highlights a few specific examples of early Jewish performers, like “Takhra Bey” of the Warsaw Circus, aka Moyshe Shtern, who pierced his body and face with needles and hung weights from them. And two tightrope walking sisters, Pese and Leah Rozentsvayg, married other performers from the tribe–clown Itsik Gayler and acrobat Yankev Birnboym, thereby starting a little bit of a family dynasty. The Lorch family was another prominent Jewish circus outfit, operating in Germany until 1930.

The circus took on new macabre dimensions for Jews during the Holocaust, according to Aish, for good or for evil. Some Jews were able to hide from Nazi detection, as family leader Alfred Althoff said: “Circus people don’t ask if you are Christian, Jewish or heathen.” Jewniverse did a profile on half-Jewish Irene Danner, a dancer who, after Kristallnacht, hid in the circus along with other members of her kin. But the Ovitz family in Romania suffered a worse fate. Many of their members were affected by dwarfism and performed some circus arts, attracting the attention of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. They were taken to Auschwitz where he performed experiments on them. Some of the family survived, and moved to Israel.

Earlier in 2017, The Ringling Brothers Circus shut down after a 146-year run. Though the Ringlings were gentiles, the most recent owners of the circus were the Jewish Feld family. Modern day opinion of circuses has swung back to the negative in part, this time due to concerns over animal treatment. But the Folklife Festival seems primed to showcase some thriving circus arts!

Jewish Migration in America

MyJewishLearning highlights the three most well known Jewish waves of immigration to America–the Sephardic settlers who arrived in the 17th century, the Germans who arrived a century later due to economic reasons or to escape persecution, and the Eastern European Jews who immigrated in the late 19th through early 20th centuries, mostly due to the pogroms. Up until World War II, there was a bit of a schism between the secular, assimilated German Jews and the newer, more numerous, more poor, Yiddish speaking and religious Eastern European Jews.

The United States, unlike Israel, is pretty uniformly Ashkenazic, aka the Jews with ancestry in Europe between Germany and Russia. But there are also some non-European enclaves, like Iranian Jews, many of whom fled after the Revolution and started a little subculture in Hollywood; check out 30 Years After for where some of their young professional community stands now. You can also find Ethiopian Jews through the Beta Israel of North America.

Post-Soviet Jews are some of the most recent arrivals to the Americas, and man do they write a lot of novels about their modern day immigrant experiences. 😛 Here’s just a few that I’ve read recently: The Cosmopolitans by Nadia Kalman, Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya and (short stories) One More Year by Sana Krasikov.

Also contrary to popular opinion, not all American Jews live in New York. 😛 The Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest chronicles migration there. I’m partial to Kansas myself, as that’s where my Jewish family ended up, so check out this article about 19th century Jewish farming communities in the state. Indeed with overcrowding back east, nervous assimilated Yids started sending the greenhorns westward, lest their numbers stir the ire of the nativists.

The southwest United States is largely known for its crypto Jewish community, aka Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism but for centuries have secretly practiced some old traditions. Check out my LibGuide for more. And on the subject of book recommendations (I haven’t read it, but want to!), An Empire of Their Own by Neal Gabler highlights the Jewish immigrants who helped shape Hollywood.

Finally, for a comprehensive look, PBS did air The Jewish Americans documentary series a few years back. Their webpage has more!

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival continues until July 9. Check out my past coverage of Jewish life in unique places under the “Annual Events” tab.