“Fig Tree” Shines Light on Jewish Ethiopia, Blends Adolescent Intrigue with National Tragedy

Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe) and Eli (Yohanes Muse) in the titular fig tree / photo courtesy of Menemsha Films

Israel has long been seen as a refuge for world Jewry. In Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian’s feature debut, she moves away from the Ashkenazim, Sephardim and Mizrahim of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and focuses the attention on Ethiopian Jews.

Fig Tree aired between Nov. 1 and 14 in the newly constructed Cafritz Hall movie theater as part of the Edlavitch Washington, DC Jewish Community Center’s JxJ yearlong programming. A loosely autobiographical story, it concerns itself with teenage Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe), a Jewish girl trying to save her Christian boyfriend Eli (Yohanes Muse) from army conscription while her own family attempts to flee to Israel.

The year is 1989 and civil war has been ranging in Ethiopia for all of Mina’s lifetime. Young men and boys are dragged off of streets and out of schools while men with megaphones yell propaganda about how they should be proud to serve their country. Eli often finds refuge in the titular fig tree, where he and Mina both play and flirt with more mature desires.

Asmamawe’s performance is the most evocative part of this piece, as she ranges between subterfuge and terror when it comes to the external army-driven plot, and mischievousness and betrayal when it comes to her personal plot. One of the most arresting smaller moments of the film was when she pressed down on the dial tone while on the phone with her erstwhile Ethiopian-Israeli mother, still pretending to speak to her for her grandmother’s benefit.

Mina’s grandmother (Weyenshiet Belachew) is a formidable lady, running a weaving business that gets the attention of much wealthier clients. She also takes Eli and his mother in under her wing, and spearheads the covert operation that will reunite her and her grandchildren with her children in Israel. This requires handing off money to a travel agent/extortionist who may or may not place Eli with a Jewish family to secure his own trip there.

I’ve watched a fair amount of foreign and indie films throughout the years, and I expect to see a degree of minimalism. But Davidian straddles the line, given the geopolitical backdrop and sense of urgency to the piece. She doesn’t give into an overwrought Hollywood musical score, but foreboding dreams and a fair share of violence makes this film feel more familiar to me as an American viewer.

Said politics, it should be noted, are not explained in much detail. We the audience are not given a crash course in Ethiopia’s history or Israel’s covert actions there (Davidian and her family were airlifted in Operation Solomon in 1991.) But one hardly needs it to empathize with the sense of danger present on screen.

It’s a very dark film, including with reference to physically amputated and mentally traumatized soldiers. But it doesn’t lack a certain hope in striving for a better future, either. Davidian returned to Ethiopia in 2016 to film with local actors in this beautiful African cultural landscape.

Fig Tree was nominated for 5 Ophirs (the Israeli Oscars) and it won for best cinematography. It also swept up awards at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. Click here for more information. And you can find my similar content and movie reviews under the Books, Plays, Music and Movies tab!

Jewish Artifacts at the National Museum of American History

Textbook and scrabble game / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

It’s been a slow mid-summer month for me. In lieu of attending any events, I decided to check out the the National Museum of American History! There’s plenty of local places to find Jewish history, if you just know where to look!

I started with the exhibit Many Voices, One Nation. American Jews stood out in a case about “resisting assimilation.” It includes this Hebrew scrabble game and a textbook.

Statue of Liberty menorah / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

My favorite find came from American Democray: A Great Leap of Faith. I love this gaudy menorah with Statue of Liberty candle holders, made in 1986 to commemorate the country’s centennial. For more information on this object, click here!

I also had a soft spot for the “courting ethnic diversity” Hebrew Barack Obama pin. 😛

American Jews featured prominently in Giving in America, too! The exhibit showcased a 1990s Jewish National Fund tzeddakkah box, as well as a Purim collection charity plaque.

I just took a swift, hour-long walk through the museum earlier this week. You should check it out yourself–for Jewish and broader American artifacts. Remember, too, that along with permanent exhibitions, special ones open regularly, too! So there’s always something new to find. Take advantage of this free resource–and get out of the heat. 😛

For more information on the National History Museum’s Jewish resources, click here!

Edlavitch DCJCC Unveils New JxJ Festival with Hybrid Events incl. Music from Yiddish Cinema

New festival’s logo plays over the AFI Silver screen / photo taken by Rachel Mauro

The Edlavatich DCJCC wrapped up its inaugural JxJ arts project yesterday, a two and a half week mashup of their film festival, music festival and “hybrid” cultural events.

I decided to attend one of these hybrid events last Thursday evening, when Isle of Klezbos and Metropolitan Klezmer performed Music from Yiddish Cinema at AFI Silver Theater. The event included vintage film clips, mostly from the 1930s, as well as live accompaniment.

More accurately, the band performed personalized renditions of various songs featured in Yiddish films. These included a mournful ensemble quartet in Yidl Mitn Fidl and the more upbeat wedding song from Uncle Moses, among others. I usually found their pieces to be more jazzy than the originals; featuring more instruments, like drums and the piano, and fewer staccato notes. It was a fascinating dive into the evolution of musical expression. And the group had a great fusion sound, too!

Percussionist and film archivist Eve Sicular also shared insights into the subtext of various musical clips, for example pointing out the influence of tuberculosis in one of Molly Picon’s Mamele numbers, and the inside references to homosexuality in Americaner Shadchen. She also detailed highlights–some known and some suppressed by the Soviet Union–of Russian-Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels. But with the event spanning almost three hours by that point–and on a weekday night no less–a little tedium started to settle in as Sicular read long excerpts from a memoir on the subject. Several people in the audience left early. But before that there was clapping and laughter in response to both these clips and the live music.

Overall, Music from Yiddish Cinema opened the door to the complexities of this genre, and served as a reminder that the past was as vivacious and full of life as the present. For more of a taste of this musical group’s hybrid flavor, click here!

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.

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.