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.

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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.

Jewish Supreme Court Justices, Family Genealogy and Military Service Dominate 2017 Jewish American Heritage Month in DC

First Jewish U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis / photo courtesy of wikipedia

May is around the corner, and with it the 11th annual Jewish American Heritage Month! The official website has been updated with upcoming events at venues around the country.

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

Lecture and Book Signing with Dr. David Dalin, May 4, 7pm
Historian and Rabbi Dr. David Dalin will be in conversation with U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman about his recent book release, Jewish Justices of the Supreme Court: From Brandeis to Kagan. Book signing to follow!

Other events in the DC include Jewish genealogy lectures with DAR Library Manuscript Curator Pamela Baster on May 4 and with genealogist Daniel Horowitz at the Library of Congress on May 8. On Memorial Day weekend, The National Museum of American Jewish Military History is teaming up with Sixth & I to present a Shabbat service in honor of the Jewish service people who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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.

Local Writers Explore the Theme of Unexpected Journeys at the 2017 Washington, DC Jewish Literary Festival

Local authors fair, consisting of Robert Gillette, Carolivia Herron, Peter Lovenheim, Elizabeth Poliner, Jennifer Robins, Benjamin Shalva, Paula Shoyer, Marlene Trestman and moderator Leslie Maitland / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Despite a bit of a false start with the snow earlier this week, the 19th Jewish Literary Festival put on by the EDCJCC kicked off on Wednesday evening with a panel of 8 local authors, and writer Leslie Maitland moderating.

Book topics ranged from Holocaust history to cookbooks to fiction and other nonfiction. Find a full list of titles here. Each author was given a little bit of time to introduce his/her work and apply it to the theme. Unsurprisingly for this sort of set up, some peoples’ narratives fit better into the idea of “unexplored journeys” than other peoples’ but they each obviously put a lot of thought and care into his/her project.

The story that intrigued me the most came from Peter Lovenheim, who, after a brutal murder-suicide on his block, felt the impetus to get to know his neighbors, and probe the idea of community in the modern age. He wrote the nonfiction book, In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. I’m also always curious about the intersection of Judaism and other cultures, which Jewish African American Carolivia Herron, covers in her novels (Peacesong DC) and children’s stories (Nappy Hair). And I have a personal connection to Elizabeth Poliner; she presided over my advanced fiction workshops a few years back at the Bethesda, MD-based Writer’s Center. Her novel, As Close to Us As Breathing, concerns the tragedy that befalls a Jewish American family in the 1940s; here she divulged that the title came to her via a prayer from the Kol Nidre service.

The event lasted a little over an hour, giving participants enough time to introduce themselves and answer a couple of questions. The audience queried about such things ranging from specific characters in a certain book to the nature of finding a publisher or agent. Speaking of diversity, that last one tends to lead to a variety of answers, too! After conclusion, the EDCJCC offered a table of desserts, and authors stuck around to sell and sign their books.

The literary festival continues through to this Sunday, March 19; you can find the rest of the schedule here. (The Bethesda Jewish Congregation is also hosting an event with journalist and bestseller, Iris Krasnow that afternoon!) The official opening event, Noa Baum’s solo talk about her memoir, A Land Twice Promised: An Israeli Woman’s Quest for Peace, has been moved to April 27.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Life in Unusual Places

Basque synagogue in Bayonne / image courtesy of culturecommunicacion.gouv.fr

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 2016 they’ve been focusing on Basque, a country that spans between northern Spain and southwestern France.

Doubtless the Festival has done a great job in covering many aspects of this nation. 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.

Basque

The Jewish Encyclopedia details life for the Tribe in the Basque provinces of the middle ages, when they were under Spanish jurisdiction. Jews lived in Vitoria, the capital of the province of Alvira, and in 1203 were moved to a special street called “Calle Nueva” or “New Street.” They chiefly worked as moneybrokers, though in 1332, Alfonso XI of Castille issued a decree that forbade Jews to take promissory notes from their Christian neighbors. These antisemitic decrees continued into the fifteenth century. After August 21, 1482, Jews weren’t permitted to enter the Franciscan monastery until after mass. Later in the year, Christian girls and women were permitted from entering the Jewish ghetto without male accompaniment. They were also prohibited from acting as a Shabbes goy, that is, cooking or lighting fires for Jews when they couldn’t due to Shabbat restrictions. Jews were also forbidden from working publicly or in Christian homes on Christian holidays, and Christians were forbidden to sell fruit in the ghetto, take services with or live with Jews. Finally, in 1484, Jews were forbidden from reading ecclesiastical edicts or serving as lawyers in lawsuits.

All of this, of course, was leading up to the official Spanish expulsion of the Jews in 1492. On June 27 of that year, prominent Jews of Vitoria came before the city council on behalf of the Jewish community, and were granted their cemetery, “Judimendi,” (Jews’ hill) so long as they didn’t plow it. Jews left Vitoria and went to the neighboring province of Navarre and elsewhere. Vitoria took possession of their synagogue and turned it into a classical school. “Calle Nueva” briefly became known as “Calle de Puenta de Rey” (Kingsbridge Street.) A year later, Marranos (Christian converts who often secretly practiced Judaism) were ordered to leave this street and live among other Christians.

The Encyclopedia concludes that French Jews may now inhabit Basque. According to former Bilbao resident Joaquin Carlos Caraguegguie, the Inquisition didn’t really touch Basque and Jews have always lived there quietly among their Christian neighbors. He gave an interview to Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer of Travel-Watch, claiming there used to be 60,000 Jews in the region and now there are about 10,000. He described his post-war childhood religion as an open secret in his community, where he attended public schools taught by Jesuits and everyone knew he was Jewish. Their Jewish practice was pretty nil, but they were raised to believe that the Old Testament was “their” bible.

Caraguegguie maintains a Basque Jewish difference from the rest of Spain with this:

“You notice how noisy it is in the rest of Spain? Not here. You walk into a Basque bar, it’s ‘May I help you?’ People say if they raise their voices, someone will die. They are quiet and polite. That was how my family maintained their Jewishness — they kept quiet about it. We were always told ‘Don’t push it.’”

A couple of years ago, Karen Ginsberg wrote a piece for the Jewish Independent about her travels to Basque. At the Musée Basque et de l’histoire de Bayonne, there is a special exhibit on Jews in French Bayonne since 1600, where some settled after the Spanish Inquisition. The collection includes a portrait of Augusta Furtado, who, in the 17th century was prominent in the Jewish world and also served twice as the mayor of Bayonne. Other artifacts come from a private 19th century synagogue, and there is a January 19, 1753 document, which is about royal protective orders and purportedly uses the title “Jew” rather than “Portuguese” or “New Christian” for the first time.

Ginsberg found a synagogue in the heart of Bayonne, but it was unclear whether or not it was still in use. Neo-classical in style, it was meant to be a shift from private to public worship, with the inscription in Hebrew and French: My house will be marked as a house of prayer for all nations.

A small community by any standards; nevertheless, check out Wikipedia’s page of famous Basque Jews! 😛

Sounds of California

Since this is also a feature of the Folklife fest, I thought I might add some music based out of Jewish California to the list. 😛 By no means meant to be conclusive, heh. But I cover a variety of bases.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival continues until July 10. Check out my past coverage of Jewish life in unique places under the “Annual Events” tab.

Black Jews Documentary and More at the Washington, DC Jewish Film Festival

Director Laurence Gavron in conversation with Michael Brenner and the audience about her documentary, “Black Jews: The Roots of the Olive Tree” / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

The house was packed at E Street Cinema for tonight’s showing of Black Jews: The Roots of the Olive Tree, a documentary about some unusual Jewish communities. Director Laurence Gavron traveled to Cameroon to meet Serge Etélé and his congregation. She also spoke with Rabbi Cappers Funnye, Michelle Obama’s cousin and head of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago.

It may be because I was sitting so close to the screen, but I really appreciated the cinematography and editing; the staging of interviewees against detailed backdrops, the wide, busy shots of crowds in Jerusalem or Cameroon, the archival footage from the U.S. Black Jewish community. Gavron and Michael Brenner from American University’s Center for Israel Studies, fielded questions afterwards about the growing global phenomenon of Africans turning from Christianity to Judaism, and how Cameroon’s community became so comfortable with mainstream Jewish rituals (largely through the internet.) I couldn’t help but smile as I witnessed these people read from the Torah on Passover while a rooster crowed in the background, or sing and dance to songs with which I was familiar, on the dusty, orange streets of a country halfway across the world.

I couldn’t just contain myself to one movie this festival, of course; I also made time for the intricately shot Song of Songs, which featured vinyl recordings of period Jewish music to underlay a story about early 20th century Ukrainian shtetl life; and Tales of a Serial Monogamist, a quirky dramedy set in artsy modern-day Toronto about a Jewish lesbian with commitment issues.

And although the first two showings (including Natalie Portman herself in attendance) are sold out, there may still be time to grab tix to the final airing of her debut directing/screenwriting gig of the Amos Oz memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness. The movie will wrap up the Jewish film festival, this Sunday, 9:45 pm at AFI Silver Theater. Maybe I’ll see you there!

Check out my past coverage of this film festival under the “Annual Events” tab.

Feb-March Jewish Books and Film in DC!

image courtesy of bitsela.com

So I’m counting down the days to the 26th annual Washington Jewish Film Festival. 😀 I really should buy some tickets already before everything sells out. 😛 (Alas, Natalie Portman directorial/screenwriting debut.) There’s all sorts of amazing components beyond the films themselves, from a documentary/panel discussion on Arab Israelis to the WJFF Visionary Award Presentation to speeches at the Library of Congress.

It’s true that several local Jewish cultural events don’t even take part within Jewish organizations. I thought I’d take this moment to highlight some Jewish-themed book talks that are associated with the broader Washington community. Please feel free to add any others in comments!

Monday, February 22, 6:30 pm
Kramerbooks
Michelle Adelman, Piece of Mind. A debut novel about a Jewish young adult dealing with a traumatic brain injury. The Jewish Book Council paid special attention to the beautiful cover, understandably!

Monday, March 14, 7 pm
Politics & Prose
Boris Fishman, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo. I heard him read an excerpt at the Washington Jewish Literary Festival last October.; good hook!

Monday, March 14, 7:30 pm
Folger Theatre
Howard Jacobson, Shylock is my Name. The Man Booker-winning British Jewish author wrote a contemporary re-telling of The Merchant of Venice. It’s part of the the Hogarth Shakespeare project, in honor of the Bard’s 400th birthday.

Stay tuned to this blog, because I’ll definitely be writing some film reviews, and maybe something from the world of books as well!