What We’re Listening To: Lucette Lagnado and Once Upon a Time

The fantastic Lucette Lagnado on the lost Jewish culture of Cairo:

“I’m so haunted by it. It’s sort of become the core of my life and my research, that once upon a time there was an Arab culture where Jews and Christians and Muslims worked together and socialized together and went to school together. And come the end of the week, they would go to pray in their respective houses of worship.”

NPR interview, September 17, 2011
‘The Arrogant Years’: An Egyptian Family in Exile

Listen to the full (six and a half minute) interview here, and then come talk to Lagnado yourself on Wednesday night, when she’ll be here for the Closing Night festivities of the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival.


Shabbat Surfing: A Hard Day’s Shabbat*

After the chaggim, we’re all getting back to the normal swing of things – like working all the way through Friday for the first time in weeks.

Of course Shabbat is its own reward, but a little pop culture goes a long way to soothe…

  • Paul McCartney is apparently becoming a member of the tribe, Heeb tells us. So now you can listen to your old albums and swoon over our new nice Jewish boy.
  • Tablet gives us video games where we can kill Hitler, and ease some revenge fantasies.
  • Tweak your image like Barbie by getting some new ink. Kosher Salt has the details.
  • If you’re interested in something other than baseball right now, check out Gather the Jews and the storied Jewish history with boxing.

*Alternate titles of this post-
Shabbat Surfing: Eleanor Rabinowitz
Shabbat Surfing: Hey Jew
Shabbat Surfing: I Wanna Be Your Manischewitz

An Important Letter From a Wonderful Friend and Artist (and Producer)

Actor, director, writer and producer Aaron Davidman is no stranger to Theater J audiences. He played the central role of Reuven Malter, the narrator, in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, this past spring in our production at Arena Stage. And while in rehearsal for that show, he presented the latest installment of his solo performance piece, Wrestling Jerusalem, as part of this past winter’s “Voices From a Changing Middle East” festival, which appeared three seasons earlier under the title, Chasing Justice/Seeking Truth: Or It’s Just Not That Safe Anymore as part “Voices From a Changing Middle East, 2007.” Aaron’s been here performing in his theater company’s 2003 production of God’s Donkey: A Play On Moses, and that company, Traveling Jewish Theatre, which would go onto be renamed “The Jewish Theatre San Francisco” has been a stalwart and a beacon and a sister theater to ours for a very long time. So long, in fact, that TJT, as it remains affectionately called, has announced that this, its 34th season, will be its last. And that this season too will go forward without Aaron as its artistic director.

So, with his blessings and permission, I share with our community Aaron Davidman’s graceful letter of farewell to his community. And in it, he urges folks to come out and see an important new production inaugurating TJT’s final season. It’s a play we’ll be talking much more about. I’ll let Aaron introduce it herein.

Blessings to Aaron, a true brother and comrade in art.

From Aaron Davidman:

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

As many of you know I recently stepped down as Artistic Director of The Jewish Theatre San Francisco (formerly Traveling Jewish Theatre) after 9 years serving in that position and twelve years working with the company. The board, founders, and leadership of TJT decided that this current season, 2011-12, would be the company’s final season. Financial challenges, due in large part to the recession, prove to be too severe to continue.

I was blessed to call TJT my artistic home for more than a decade. I am grateful to Naomi Newman, Corey Fischer and Albert Greenberg for the vision they brought forward in 1978 to create a unique theatre that valued craft as much as content; that pushed the edge of form as much as sought diversity in subject matter; and that bravely pursued an inquiry into Jewish identity that has served public discourse and moved communities around the world to consider and re-consider what it means to be Jewish.

While there is sadness in the closing of TJT, the fact that the company had a 34 year run is something to be celebrated. The business model of the non-profit theatre company is a challenging one in the best of economic times, and TJT’s longevity—some might say tenacity—is a testament to the commitment of the artists and technicians and administrators and audiences who drove TJT for more than three decades.

I salute you all.

I am honored to have worked with each and every one of you; to have performed for, written for, directed for all of you. I remain moved by the enterprise. By the act of gathering in a darkened room to create something together that reminds us of our own humanity, that gives us the chance to laugh at our own shortcomings, that calls us to rise to our potential to create change. The art form of the theatre has been my greatest teacher.

The Jewish tradition and the theatre tradition share many things, but the deepest common link, to me, has always been the call to question.  Why? Deep inquiry pushes back against the hubris that dominates our airwaves, the hubris that blind-sides our politicians, the hubris that compromises our corporations. This inquiry has reminded me, time and again, that there is always more to learn. And while I am developing a career outside the theatre—very few of us these days can make a living solely in the field—I remain as committed as ever to the inquiry. I will continue to write plays and work on projects and wrestle with stories that feel vital and worthy of attention.

This week, TJT opens its final world-premiere, a play about The Group Theatre by Corey Fischer called In The Maze Of Our Own Lives. It feels like an auspicious moment to encounter the story of America’s first ensemble theatre. A cadre of idealists who came together to change the world through the art of theatre, and the achievements and challenges they faced along the way. This story has Jewish roots and theatre roots and couldn’t be a more fitting play for TJT’s final year.

As for you and me, I’m sure we’ll see each other around. If you’re interested, you can stay in touch with what I’m working on by stopping by my web site: www.aarondavidman.com.

I also started writing a blog last Spring when I rode the AIDS Life/Cycle Ride. The blog is called STORIES AND REFLECTIONS and I’ll be posting more material there when projects call for it: http://aarondavidman.wordpress.com/.

My email address is ad@aarondavidman.com.
Be well and stay in touch.

Seven Questions For: David Bezmozgis

Bezmozgis (c) David Franco [Free World]David Bezmozgis comes to the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival this Sunday along with Nadia Kalman (The Cosmopolitans) and Haley Tanner (Vaclav and Lena) for the panel discussion “Glasnost’s Children” which examines new fiction on the Russian-Jewish experience. Bezmozgis has been getting lots of acclaim ever since his debut collection of short stories, Natasha and in 2010 was named to the New Yorker’s list of “20 Under 40” highlighting the most promising fiction writers under the age of 40.  What about his new novel The Free World? Well, The New York Times said:

Might it be overstating the case to include this first-time novelist in the same sentence as such fine writers as Mr. Roth and Mr. Michaels? Well, Mr. Bezmozgis’s taut 2004 debut collection “Natasha and Other Stories” suggested that he might well be of those authors’ caliber; “The Free World” goes a long way toward confirming this status.

We asked him the Seven Questions over email and got the following. I’m willing to bet he’ll be more loquacious at the panel discussion.

1)    How would you describe what you do to someone from the 19th Century?

The problem isn’t describing it to someone from the 19th century, the problem is describing it to someone in the 21st century.

2)    What did you want to be when you grew up?

Remarkably, this.

3)    Is there a book you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never read?

Many. But I’ll go with Proust.

4)    Woody Allen, Pro or Con?

Pro, pre-1990s; con, post-1990s.

5)    What’s your favorite non-English word?


6)    What issue do you wish other people knew more about?

How about the definitions of fascism and socialism? Those words get thrown around a lot. Often interchangeably.

7)    Historical figure, living or not, that you’d want to share a bagel with and what kind of bagel?

You mean we’d have to split one poppyseed Montreal bagel? Well, somebody ancient. Cleopatra. Or King David. Or Socrates.

Read all of the Seven Question interviews.

Everything But…

Have you participated in the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service‘s Everything But The Turkey event? If not you’re missing out.

Imagine being in a room with over 100 volunteers along with cabbage, sweet potatoes, celery, bread, green beans everywhere. Join us for this amazing event where we prepare food for the homeless for Thanksgiving. It’s a fun project and a great way to give back to the community!

We’ll provide everything; food, recipes, utensils and all. Learn more and register today! Space fills up fast!

All of the food prepared is donated to DC Central Kitchen and their partner agencies.

Fun New Thing of the Day: Those Tortured Teen Years, Now in T-shirt Form

Oh, those anxiety-filled days when you were thirteen and wondered if you would ever get kissed.

Some DJ must have taken pity upon us and created the “champagne snowball,” wherein all the kids dancing at the Bat Mitzvah would circle up around the Bat Mitzvah girl and she would pick the cutest boy in her grade to dance with. They’d dance until the DJ said “champagne snowball!,” in that creepy way that only comes from trying to get thirteen-year-olds to hook up.

“Champagne” meant a kiss, and the “snowball” happened when each partner of the dancing couple split to choose another person from the circle, until eventually everyone was dancing and everyone had been kissed.


At my Bat Mitzvah, the girls outnumbered the guys 4-to-1. (Seriously?! No one called ‘lesbian’?! Hindsight, I guess…)

At the time, “champagne snowball!” gave us an excuse to ask anyone we wanted to dance. Those were the rules. We had to; I mean, you can’t not “champagne snowball.”

And now, someone has a t-shirt* to bring you back to that time when all you had to do to get to kiss the person you liked was wait around the dance floor long enough.

*We have no connection to these people. We just liked the shirt.

What We’re Listening To: Jews and the Civil War

It’s 150 years after the end of the Civil War and we still struggle with our neighbors about what it means to be American. We argue over what it means to act appropriately patriotic, to act as a proud citizen.

We are much closer to the Civil War than we may like to think, with a Presidential candidate threatening that his state will secede – and gaining supporters because of that threat. Now, just as then, Jews are found on all sides of the political spectrum, and as we get closer to the next election, these divisions become deeper.

Did we join the Occupy Judaism part of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and put up a sukkah in Zucotti Park? Or did we make sure to get on the mailing list for the Jewish Tea Party?

Faith has long been a reason to get involved in politics – tzedek, tzedek, tirdof (justice, justice shall you pursue) is the rallying cry of many Jewish groups, not just one side. 150 years ago, what did we think was justice, and where did we all end up?

Tonight is the opening night for the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, and the theme is United By Faith, Divided By War: Jews and the Civil War. A series of dramatic readings will recreate the participation of Jews in the Civil War, from statesmen to spies – spies like Eugenia Levy, “a fire-eating secessionist in skirts.”

No, really, there was an incredible amount of Jewish participation; listen to Kojo Nnamdi at 12:30 today on NPR to hear about it, and then see it come to life on stage at the opening tonight.

Because the Civil War’s echoes are still happening all around us.

Funny, You Do Look Jewish – Saturday, In Memory of Ann Loeb Bronfman

Living in Washington since 1985, Ann Loeb Bronfman (z”l) was a champion of the arts and a philanthropist to many causes until she passed away in April 2011.  Her philanthropy at the Washington DCJCC including the establishment of the Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery during the renovation of the Washington DCJCC’s historic home at 16th and Q Streets. To honor her memory and continue her legacy of providing culture and arts to the community, the Washington DCJCC has established an annual lecture  focusing on women working in the visual arts —spanning both the Jewish community and secular art world.

This year’s esteemed guest lecturer is Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTnews Magazine and the galleries columnist at Tablet. She will be discussing historical and contemporary Jewish artists and what makes their art Jewish: Funny, You Do Look Jewish. She will also be discussing her career as a Jewish art journalist, covering both Jewish and non-Jewish art. Her lecture will be followed by a reception.

Robin Cembalest is a native of Long Island and a graduate of Yale. She has written extensively on art and culture for The Forward (where she was arts editor), The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Observer, and many other publications. A veteran editor and writer on Jewish art and culture, she has covered subjects ranging from ancient mosaics in Israel to Barbie’s Jewish roots.

We are looking forward to lively exchanges, including when we try to figure out, exactly what is Jewish art?

Gilad Shalit’s Return: Portrait of a Father-Son Embrace

Gilad Shalit Hugs His Father

There have been a lot of words on the Internet today about the long-awaited return of Gilad Shalit. I don’t know that any of those words speak as loudly as this image of a father embracing his son. Perhaps it is even more appropriate that Gilad’s face is obscured in the shot – he has been captive so long that his physical reality is a mysterious and now a novel fact, whereas the ache of the family awaiting his return is something all of us can immediately connect to. The way Noam Shalit envelopes his son and rests his head on his shoulder with his eyes closed is the universal embrace of all fathers who receive their child back from peril, thankful for the miracle of return that makes this hug possible. Imagine how many nights over the past five years Noam Shalit imagined this embrace? Tried to feel it? Imagined what it would smell like? Born of the greatest and prolonged trauma one can imagine for a parent, the emotion of the image is so shockingly human and raw, that one smiles even as one recognizes the vulnerability and pain it acknowledges. This most compelling of family reunions occupies the foreground of the photo, while Prime Minister Netanyahu is relegated to the background, a smiling spectator on a day when for the moment, politics in Israel can recede to an afterthought.

A photograph like this reminds us that the drama of Gilad Shalit is a family drama. It reminds us that more than just being a country of political parties, conflicts and territory, Israel is a country of families. Families with real lives. The joy of the Shalit family is twinned with the inverse drama of those families who have lost loved ones to terrorism having to endure the sight of some of those responsible for their murder go free in exchange. Out of sight of the cameras, they too will embrace each other, their grief given fresh potency, as the murderers are welcomed as heroes in Gaza and the West Bank.

On such a dramatic day, we join in feeling the joy of the Shalit family, even as we feel the pain of those other families. We are reminded of the high price Israel is forced to pay for its survival, and that that price is borne not in abstraction, but by the families of the Jewish state.

Have you ever lost?

Luke?Have you ever lost something or someone that wasn’t really yours to begin with? It kind of aches and leaves a hole and you’re really not sure why.

August 30, I gave what people call “the gift of life,” through my Peripheral Blood Stem Cells (PBSC). I was excited that my cells could help fight someone else’s disease.

I found out this morning that Luke and I lost the fight.

Be the Match/National Bone Marrow Registry will not give you the name of your recipient until one year after the donation, but I needed a name. To be more personable and to make the situation more realistic for me, I began calling my recipient Luke (for the Leukemia that possessed him), to make him a person. Naming him made it much easier to fight for Luke and to give him my PBSC.

I understand the need for anonymity but it hurts to know that I can’t contact his family, send them a condolence card by name, or even learn the town where they live.

Do I have a right to grieve? It is a shame that this Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) could not have been a new beginning for Luke, this stranger in my life.

Still, it was still worth it and I would do it all over again.

If you aren’t a part of the National Marrow Donor Program, you should be. It’s easy to register, and saves thousands* of lives each year. I wish Luke had been one of them.

(And if you don’t feel comfortable joining the registry, join us to donate blood on October 27. I’ll be there.)


Read the whole story here:
How I Became a Stem Cell Donor
How I Became a Stem Cell Donor (part two)
Soon to Be Stem Cell Donor

It’s a New Year, Volunteer

*They currently need twice the donors they get. 10,000 people are on the bone marrow waitlist, and only 5,000 ever get the transplant.

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