Boxed In

by Francine Zorn Trachtenberg

Many of our modern cities are designed according to an organized pattern. Washington is such a town. L’Enfant’s diagonal radii emanate from the U.S. Capitol (like Copernicus’ heliocentric universe) and the spaces in between are filled with a rectilinear grid of streets, sequentially numbered and lettered. Every once in a while there is an exception to this layout, but for the most part, navigation moves along according to plan. The Washington DCJCC sits on the corner of Q and 16th Streets, with a clear view to the White House. Prime real estate.

Much of Washington’s political sociology is also pushed into grids: House or Senate, Democrat, Independent, Republican or the Rainbow Coalition; Pro-choice, Anti-abortion, or Taxation without Representation; City Slicker, Country Bumpkin, Red-State or Blue-State. We label positions, people and places into neat (and sometimes messy) categories.

The Jewish community and the Washington DCJCC are no exceptions to this container-mania. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstruction, Unaffiliated, Atheist, non-Jewish; Male, Female, Heterosexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Intersex; Infant, Youth, Adult, Senior, Elderly; Health & Fitness, Arts, Children and Family, Judaic Studies, Community Service; DC, Maryland, Virginia; not to mention sports, hobbies, talents, academic majors, countries of ancestral heritage, professional affiliation and food fetishes.

Hannah Higgins has written a book that explores some of the governing principles about how we view / interpret / organize / conceptualize / discuss the world around us. Her work, The Grid Book analyzes ten forms she believes altered the world: the brick, the tablet, the gridiron city plan, the map, musical notation, the ledger, the screen, moveable type, the manufactured box, and the net.

While there is nothing inherently Jewish in Higgins’ content, her book got me thinking about the various ways “the chosen people” depict themselves – some serious and some less so.

Is Jewish cuisine the same as kosher cooking? After the Second World War, Jewish cooking was synonymous with Eastern European food: matzo balls, flanken, chopped liver, kasha with varnishke, potato latkes. But by the 1960s Israeli foods, most with a Middle Eastern twist, appear on the table alongside the Ashkenazi, including: falafel, hummus, sufganiot, couscous, and shish kebabs. Sephardic Jews serve bourekas as hors d’oeuvres, add dates and cardamom to charoset, use more cinnamon and cumin than paprika and parsley and eat rice on Passover. Even with all these mouthfuls, it has been suggested that putting the words, “Jewish, kosher or Israeli” alongside the word “cuisine” creates a series of oxymoron’s, but that is a digression.

In a recent New York Times article, food writer, Julia Moskin, reports that, “Since the fall of Communism and the breakup of Yugoslavia, many young people from the region have arrived in New York seeking work, education and adventure. Charcoal-grilled pljeskavica and cevapi… have become common in neighborhoods like Astoria and Ridgewood in Queens, where Bosnians and Croatians, Serbs and Montenegrins now open businesses side by side. ‘As long as no one talks about politics, we can live together here,’ …”

Our nation was once described as a melting pot, an amalgam of immigrants surrendering their ethnic culture into the term, “American.” But today we are similar to a smorgasbord of distinct tastes, preserving the individuality of numerous heritages and identities. Go to a Nationals baseball game and you can nosh on Kosher Grill’s hot dogs and knishes, chow down on Ben’s Chili Bowl half-smokes, Ballpen’s burritos or Senator’s Sausage – Italian spicy style. Not only to each his own, but your taste is now my taste.

A work colleague once described me as “religious.” I demurred, and she added, “But you’re so openly Jewish.”

“I’m culturally Jewish, not religious. There is a difference.”

“But you celebrate Jewish holidays.”

Our conversation never quite came to closure. The label given to us by others comes with its own set of preconceptions and is often difficult to modify.

Many years ago I asked to serve on the board of a non-profit organization in order to represent “suburban young motherhood.” Now, I’m a not-so-young grandmother and that category no longer fits. As politically incorrect as it may sound, an organization in DC told me that they were looking for “more Asian women from Ward 4” to participate in a new program.

How do you separate this type of descriptive text from stereotypes? How easy is it to move from stereotyping to profiling, or then from profiling to acts of discrimination?

Is it a fence, wall, barrier, an act of self-protection or of mild aggression?

To many people, the lines of the grid are strongest when they become wobbly and provide for flexibility and interpretation. Then again, others say that the confining rigidity gives organization to the otherwise chaotic world.

And you, how many boxes do you fit into, Jewish and otherwise?

Ms. Trachtenberg is the immediate past-president of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. She is a former Senior Vice President at WETA and adjunct faculty member at the George Washington University’s art department, teaching the history of photography.

Mommy Queerest Meets A Serious Man

by Francine Zorn Trachtenberg

Last weekend I saw two Jewish performances:  Judy Gold’s, Mommy Queerest (at Theater J through New Year’s weekend) and the Coen brothers’, A Serious Man (presently at the AFI in Silver Spring).  I made some assumptions before seeing them that proved none too accurate.  By its title, Judy Gold announces her play is unlikely to be about a stereotypical Jewish family.  The double entendre of  “queer” – gay as well as out of the ordinary – sets up the audience for an evening of unconventional fare.  Likewise, by the title, the Coen brothers position their film to be about a solemn, earnest person – perhaps a stereotypical bookish, maybe even pious Jew.  I was prepared for the first to be about a dysfunctional household and the second to be a sardonic take on mid-Western suburban life.

Both delve into the childhood of Jewish teens during the late 1950s and 60s.  Both opine on their parents in categorical terms: neither set understands its prodigy.   Similarities of subject matter exist between Gold and the Coens, but there is little symmetry in their perceptions or interpretations of growing up Jewish.

These artists are pros: the writing of both scripts is tight, the staging compact.  Rhythm and moods are established early on through jingles and period videos for Gold and parable and the shtetl’s folklore for the Coens.   But in the end, one performance is uplifting and the other is a downer.

Judy Gold’s energy is infectious and her optimism about life is contagious.  At 6’3” she is a wonder-woman:  a gay, mother of two, stand-up comedian with the subject matter of a Seinfeld character – nothingness rising to a higher plane.  She is worn-down by her mother whose difficulties with aging classically sandwich Gold between the generations of caretaker for the young and the elderly.  Everyone wants her attention and she has little time (or space) for herself.  Nothing would make this lady happier than a second bathroom!  She kvetches, for sure, but why not?  The situations she encounters couldn’t be made up – life is better material than fiction.  She comes out of it a winner.

Now for the Coen brothers: what are they thinking?  Did they not meet a single redeeming person in their entire childhood?  It is far too easy to ridicule the rabbinate (three generations) and the professoriate (tenured and untenured), to portray a town full of people from Chelm.  In the end, we have the story of Job, of a burdened, unsuspecting, long-suffering soul whose life is filled with one misfortune after another.  His children are doped-up and shrill; his wife is prissy, on one side of his house, the neighbor is the classic anti-Semite and on the other side – well, best to say she is a Jewish boy’s fantasy.  Who in this movie has depth, is real?  Maybe it is the protagonist’s brother, a foil to everyone elses’ travails, but as broad-shouldered as Arthur is, he can’t carry the weight of this film alone.  We have the death of religion, the family and of the academy.  Tornadoes, cancer, automobile accidents, bribery and drugs deluge the characters.  There is nothing to take away from their lives – no character trait worth emulating.  The story sinks below even Woody Allen’s contempt for his Jewish heritage.

Judy Gold’s, Mommy Queerest is a healthy series of retorts on her life; the Coen brothers, A Serious Man is an unforgiving series of put-downs.  In the end, I say, “Go girl, go!”

Ms. Trachtenberg is the immediate past-president of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. She is a former Senior Vice President at WETA and adjunct faculty member at the George Washington University’s art department, teaching the history of photography.


Bernard-Henri Lévy at the French Embassy is Sold Out

Don’t get left out of these other excellent non-fiction talks and readings at the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival:

  • Tuesday, September 16–Edgar Bronfman with Wayne Firestone talk about Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (Birthright Alumni get in free!)
  • Friday, September 19–Jacques Berlinerblau discusses Thumpin’ It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today’s Presidential Politics
  • Tuesday, September 23–Ariel Sabar discusses My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq
  • Wednesday, September 24–Masha Gessen discusses Blood Matters: From Inherited Illness to Designer Babies, How the World and I Found Ourselves in the Future of the Gene
  • Wednesday, September 24–Stephen Joel Trachtenberg talks about Big Man on Campus with Francine Zorn Trachtenberg

Jim Zorn, You Belong Here!

We’re taking Sally Jenkin’s advice and getting excited about Jim Zorn coming to Washington. Yes, we were disappointed to see Joe Gibbs re-retire. And sure it would have been nice to have had a head coach like Gregg Williams take the throne as the heir apparent and player-favorite, or alternately one with a proven record of winning like Jim Fassel, or even a rising assistant with the glow of a Super Bowl victory fresh on his resume like Steve Spagnuolo. But no. We got Zorn.

And frankly we’re fine with that.

You see, here at the 16th Street J we’ve done pretty well by Zorns over the years. Our immediate past president is Francine Zorn Trachtenberg, and while she never threw for over 21,000 yards in the NFL, she did oversee the J’s wildly successful tenth anniversary celebrations last year.

We’ve also benefited from a longstanding association with radical Jewish music pioneer John Zorn, who conducted his Masada String Trio on the opening night of the Washington Jewish Music Festival in 2005. And before there was JDub — the innovative music label that launched Matisyahu — there was John Zorn’s label Tzadik leading the modern klezmer revival. If hip hop is the driving cultural force behind JDub, then Tzadik was driven by Punk. Continue reading

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