The Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Jewish Life in Unusual Places

Recently renovated Kahal Zur synagogue in Brazil / photo courtesy of JudaicTourism.com

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival takes place every summer, well usually! 2019 was curtailed by the federal shutdown and this year has an even bigger nemesis—the coronavirus! For public safety, there were no in-person events this year.

The purpose of the festival is to bring amazing world cultural events to the National Mall! But since they couldn’t do that this year, they thought up a new sort of program, called Beyond the Mall. You can watch all of the archived programs here. And technically, two countries took center stage online—the United Arab Emirates and Brazil!

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.

The United Arab Emirates

Back in the 12th century, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, Rabbi Benjamin of Tuleda journeyed to visit “far-flung Jewish communities,” including some of the area that is now the UAE. He found a community in “Kis,” which is located in Ras al-Khaimah.

That being said, there’s no more reference to the Jewish community in the UAE until last century. When the country was founded in 1971, there was a small community of Jewish locals and those who moved to the country for business.

It took until the 21st century, last year in fact, for the UAE Ministry of Tolerance to recognize the Jewish community. Things have progressed quickly from there. A synagogue is said to be under construction and Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, NYU Chaplain, will will serve as Chief Rabbi. He’ll travel to the Emirates a few times a year to help cultivate the local religious leadership. A new Talmud Torah school has opened in Dubai as well.

The Jewish community currently rents a villa to act as a synagogue, and follows Orthodox practice, with some benedictions to UAE rulers thrown in. The location of the new synagogue, and the names of Jewish community members, are kept secret.

That being said, Sarna feels optimistic about presenting as a Jew in the Emirates today. He told Haaretz:

“When it was suggested in 2010 that I start visiting NYU in Abu Dhabi, where we also have some Jewish students, I said I’ll go only if it’s safe enough for me to go dressed the way I dress. They said come, and I walk around there with a kippa and tzitzit. I’ve gone every year for the past eight years twice a year exactly as I am now.”

Things weren’t always so optimistic. In 1999, a British university banned books by Jewish authors at its UAE campus. And the Zayed Center, named for UAE founder Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, published a report blaming Zionists for the Holocaust, which later got the center shuttered by the government, according to the U.S. Department of State. The report also highlights cartoons, editorials and op-eds, denigrating “the Zionist Lobby,” comparing Israelis to Nazis and hearkening to conspiracy theories about Jews ruling the world.

The recent positive shift may owe a lot to the 2019 visit to the Emirates by Pope Francis, which propelled the country to take acts towards interfaith tolerance.

Brazil

Jews first arrived to Brazil in the 16th century, according to the World Jewish Congress, on European expeditions led by Christopher Columbus. Many “new Christians,” often forcibly converted and still practicing Judaism in secret, fled from the Portuguese and Spanish Inquisitions.

They started out with the first sugar plantations, but by 1645, the community had grown 1500 strong, with a Torah and tzedakah fund, and worked in various trades. With expanding Dutch influence in Brazil, Jews found more tolerance and greater commercial success. The Jewish Virtual Library points to the first synagogue, Kahal Zur, built in 1636 in the Dutch capital of Recife. The Dutch were driven out of Brazil in 1654.

Until 1773, when a royal decree abolished anti-Jewish persecution, Portuguese Brazil was a more tenuous place for Jews. Isaac de Castro was arrested in 1647, sent back for trial in Portugal and burned at the stake for teaching Jewish rites and customs. Increased persecution led many Jews to immigrate to Curacao, New York and back to Europe. Those who stayed often lived as conversos. The Jewish Traveler’s Guide: Hadassah Magazine’s Guide to the World’s Jewish Communities and Sights by Alan M. Tigay says this:

Some conversos moved to Sao Paulo, in southern Brazil, to get far away from the Inquisition’s headquarters in the north. Scholars claim that they have assimilated quickly and thoroughly, thus erasing Jewishness from the Brazilian scene until the nineteenth century. But evidence of jungle tribes who light Friday-night candles and don’t eat pork and the appearance at one Sao Paolo synagogue of at least one Catholic a month searching for Jewish roots seems to belie this.

Brazil gained independence in 1822, and Jews settled in cities around the Amazons (Moroccan Jews) and Rio Di Janerio (Ashkenazi and some Sephardi Jews.) Some Jews tried to establish autonomous agricultural settlements, but they didn’t pan out. New Jewish immigrants, some 50,000 fleeing the impending Holocaust, settled in more cities, and some antisemitism followed. But after the war, Jews started to see more acceptance again, and started to win seats of public office.

Postwar Jews immigrated as well, some 3,500 from North Africa. By the 1960s, there were 140,000 Jews living in Brazil, and 33 Jewish day schools attended by 10,000 pupils. Today, the total number is around 120,000 Jews, but cultural and religious expression continue to thrive, from liberal to Orthodox and Ashkenazi to Moroccan. The Confederacao Israelita do Brasil (CONIB), founded in 1951, is an umbrella group for the Brazilian Jewish community’s political, and often Zionist, aims. In 2016, a record amount of Brazilian Jews made Aliyah to Israel, though Brazil isn’t known to be a hotbed of antisemitism. If anything, intermarriage appears to be the bigger threat to the community.

In 2001, Kahal Zur was reopened 347 years after the Portuguese shuttered it. An excavation, led by archeologist Marcos Albuquerque, was able to preserve some original foundation to use in the rebuild. Kahal Zur now serves as a museum for visitors to Recife.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival swims in uncertain waters until next year, but we have a long history to look back on for now. Check out my past coverage of Jewish life in unique places under the “Annual Events” tab.

Ilan Stavans Delves into Yiddish Language in America

Ilan Stavans (right) in conversation with Corey Flintoff / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

Writer Ilan Stavans started his talk at Politics & Prose at the Wharf by referencing his 1975 book, Spanglish.

When he first encountered the mixings of Spanish and English in the United States, he was appalled. But later, he came to understand what he termed as “Spanglish” through the lens of Yiddish–a language that refuses to die and is re-crafted and carried forward into new locales by hearty immigrants.

Stavans was in conversation with former NPR international correspondent Corey Flintoff on Tuesday night in southwest DC, talking about his new book, How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish. The book, co-edited with Josh Lambert of the Yiddish Book Center, is actually an anthology of short stories, essays, cartoons, speeches and etc by Yiddish speakers. But Ilan centered most of his talk on the history and future of Yiddish in America–with a significant side step into the topic of his current work-in-progress, a biography of writer Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Yiddish, the mixing of German and Hebrew, has been around for a thousand years. With the Jews, it slowly moved out of Germanic lands and into the Pale of Settlement, where its speakers were either lost to the Holocaust or to emigration. America is now a primary home for Yiddish speakers, especially among ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Jews have lived all around the world, and several Judeo dialects sprung up, with Ladino (Spanish and Hebrew) being the second most prominent. But none, said Stavans, have been as linguistically developed, and as culturally relevant as Yiddish. In America, Yiddish took on new life through the writings of Singer, Sholem Aleichem and others. Now, plenty of words like oy, meshugenneh, kvell, feklempt and others have entered the American-English lexicon, even among non-Jews.

Yiddish is described as “the ever dying language,” in part because Jewish American immigrants often stopped teaching the language to their children. Stavans’s experience growing up in Mexico was different. In school he read several texts, including seminal ones about Mexican history, in Yiddish. Lately in the United States, despite the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research laying off its librarians, there has been a resurgence of interest in Yiddish. Stavans and audience members kvelled over the off-Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish and the recent translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone into the language. One of the translators, Stavans noted, is a gentile.

The ultra-Orthodox inhabit a different sort of Yiddish language. One audience member described their language as “parochial,” and the general consensus seemed to be that there was something (chutzpah, perhaps?) lacking here. I was reminded of a passage from the memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman:

I am shocked by the irreverent tone in “Tevye the Milkman”; who knew anything written in Yiddish could sound so crass and offensive? I always thought of it as a formal language, but apparently there are many Yiddish words that have gone out of fashion, because the Yiddish of today’s Williamsburg is nothing like the earthy, naughty Yiddish of the nineteenth century. It makes my cheeks burn just to read it.

Much like the young Feldman snuck in some contraband secular Yiddish literature, Stavans said he saw some Orthodox men taking novels from the Yiddish Book Center as entertainment for their daughters.

To purchase a copy of How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish. (and support your local indie!), click here. And you can find similar coverage of my attended literary events under the Books, Plays, Movies and Music tab!

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.

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.