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.

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Commemorate MLK Weekend 2019 and Tu B’Shevat 5779 in DC

Graphic courtesy of Openclipart

Happy 2019, everyone! The Jewish DC community started off the year with a bang…or with a synagogue rolling down the street! The recently minted Capital Jewish Museum (formerly the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington) moved DC’s oldest synagogue, built in 1876, for the third time since 1969! At its new home on the corner of Third and F streets, it will become part of a new museum on local Jewish history to open in 2021. I interned at JHSGW in 2012, and I can’t wait!

Luckily, there are more current events coming up on our collective horizon. In less than a week we have one secular and one religious holiday crop up in our midst–MLK Weekend goes from Jan 19-21 and Tu B’Shevat also occurs between the 20th and the 21st. 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, featuring a a special address from Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee).
  • Adas Israel’s MLK celebration during Shabbat Shirah. Featuring a Friday night Return Again Shabbat service and dinner, and a Saturday morning service with guests from Roderick Giles and Grace Gospel Ensemble. The sermon will be led by guest rabbi Sandra Lawson, who will also facilitate an afternoon workshop entitled “Creating an Inclusive Jewish Future.”
  • Also check out Monday’s Day of Service with the EDJCC!

Tu B’Shevat

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.