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James Vincent McMorrow: The Irish Bard Plays the Bimah

James+Vincent+McMorrow+JVM18I’m Jewish and a DC native, but this was my first time visiting Sixth & I.  The historic synagogue opened in 1908 and spent 51 years as a Methodist church before being restored and reopened as a 21st century Jewish community center of sorts in 2004.  Today, it plays host to comedians, musicians, and other performers, as often gentile as they are Jewish.

I decided to make my first trip for purely non-religious reasons.  James Vincent McMorrow was playing, an artist described by more than one publication as “the Irish Bon Iver,” and I’m a big fan.  McMorrow went to New York and then Coachella in the days after playing Sixth & I, but on a warm April night, a friend and I saw him in a show more intimate than those could ever be.

Stepping into the building from I street, it felt as though I’d entered any other religious or civic center with a small and uninteresting reception area distinguished only by the presence of a makeshift beer and wine bar.  My friend and I grabbed a drink and walked up the flight of stairs into the main sanctuary.  Stained glass windows lined one wall, and an eerie, hazy light filtered through them into the auditorium from the street.  Numbered pews faced a raised stage with balcony seating providing the feel of a concert venue, but a large menorah flickering to the side refusing to fully complete the image.

Glen Hansard, best known from the movie Once, wouldn’t be a bad superficial comparison for James Vincent McMorrow.  They’re both bearded Irishmen with a deeply emotional, lyrics-driven catalogue.  However, McMorrow’s voice is a tool entirely his own.  Like Justin Vernon, McMorrow lives within the falsetto, but he pushes his voice and volume further than Vernon to both his detriment and his triumph.  In many ways, he reminds me of the other geniuses of the falsetto who have been among my lasting favorites: Jeff Buckley, Andrew Bird, and Freddie Mercury come to mind.

When McMorrow and his three countrymen stepped on stage after a stirring acoustic culmination to opener Aidan Knight’s set, they seemed nervous.  They didn’t go right for their most popular songs.  The house was packed with a young crowd, many of whom had clearly never been to Sixth & I either.  Most concerning of all, the band didn’t seem like they had played together for long or formed much chemistry – a suspicion I later had confirmed.

But then they got a feel for the place.  A light show kicked in behind them.  It grabbed attention, with a textured screen and series of amorphous, slowly pulsing video projections.  The band picked up their pace, and McMorrow began to unleash.  He started hitting his best material, and reminded fans that it’s unbelievable how many solid songs he has on only two albums.  The audience had clearly been won over as well, finally getting in a groove with the alternating pattern of material from Post Tropical, McMorrow’s most recent album, and his first, Early in the Morning.

The band closed out their main set with “Cavalier,” a highlight and personal favorite from Post Tropical, before leaving McMorrow to break out a soulful solo cover of Steve Winwood’s 80’s jam, “Higher Love.”  Applause rained in, McMorrow took his bow, and then performed the shortest encore break in history, barely letting the doors close behind him.  He came back by himself and played “And If My Heart Should Somehow Stop,” bringing his voice louder with each chorus.  The soft-spoken guy, who described himself as doing “a poor job of looking like a lumberjack,” then told a story about feeling guilty for sleeping in and not getting to see much of DC.

The rest of the band came trotting out shortly after for their finale.  They hit their stride immediately, carrying over from where they left off before the intermission, and nailed the Mumford and Sons style build-up on “If I Had a Boat.”  The house (of worship) erupted in applause, and the band said their goodbyes.

I was left behind with images of “eight crazy, happy Irishmen” cruising the monuments on bright red Capital Bikeshares, as McMorrow triumphantly decided on stage they would be doing after the show.  Though he may not be the best at counting — there were only three other people in the band — there’s no doubt he can play, and with a few more albums as quality as his first two, I’ll be there to see him.

Listen to a clip Max recorded from the show:

 

America the Beautiful: Reflections on James and Deborah Fallows’ “American Futures” Collection

AmericanFuturesCOVERSmall (1)The audience arrived early vying for good seats. The crowd was comprised of mostly grey-haired couples. If the people who asked questions were indicative of the majority of the group, many of the spectators had followed the work of James and Deborah Fallow for decades as they documented life and language for the Atlantic both internationally and in the States. The couple took the stage with a smile, accompanied by the night’s interviewer, the Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief, James Bennett, to share insights from their cross-country travels.

Since last August the Fallows have undertaken a project of national importance. They have piloted themselves around the nation at 2500 feet by propeller airplane to visit America’s small towns and uncover their stories. The small towns that they seek must meet a certain criteria, not merely a low number of permanent residents, but also places typically out of the national spotlight. They land in the small towns of the flyover states and report to rest of us what should be recognized by the whole of us.

The couple apologetically interrupted each other as they eagerly shared their favorite stories from the far-flung cities across the plains and the coasts, spanning from California to Maine, Michigan to South Carolina, South Dakota to Vermont. Their stories gave away their earnest surprise to discover high levels of national pride in every town. Each place also exhibited a go-hung ho attitude that expected and desired solutions for its successes to come from within its population, not from Washington or their own respective state capitols.

Listening to tales of the nation there were trends that stood out, things that as a country we should applaud and issues that we should all work together to overcome. In cities all across the nation there were entrepreneurs vying to not only create businesses that would allow them to remain in the small towns that they loved, but there are business innovators who are changing the economic markets by revolutionizing local industry. In Maine seaports are being reinvigorated, in South Carolina there is tech boom whose creative environment and designs rival that of Silicon Valley.

These places are transforming through collaboration between old populations and new residents and there is a strong desire to retain their younger generations. Change is good, but it comes with its challenges. There are clashes between PFAs (People From Away) and those who were born in the town. There are ideas about a sense of propriety and identity that outsiders are often expected to conform to which is sometimes difficult for Americans from other places and no more easy for immigrants.

In America today, many immigrants are skipping large cities as ports of entry and heading straight to small towns and suburbs. Some places, such as Sioux Falls, South Dakota, are on the map because they have extraordinary refugee integration programs. Economically immigrants are a boon to society but sometimes there arrival is wrought with complications that challenge communities to be adaptive. In many places across the United States ESL (English as a Second Language) classes are taught by teaching English to students via another language, often Spanish. This model is becoming useless in areas where there are more diverse immigrant populations and Spanish may only be spoken by 30% of the population and the other 70% is comprised of native speakers of various languages from across the globe. The schools are experimenting with various teaching models that have been previously underused in this country such as ulpan teaching method, where the instructors only speak the language that they are teaching without any translation into the students’ native language.

“American Futures” presents a country that is adapting to life in the 21st century but is also grappling with its past. Though the Fallows’ reports present a mostly positive view of American life across the country they are careful not to be too Pollyannaish, and with good reason. Many towns are still coming to terms with their violent histories of racism. There are still stark divides in perception of the advances areas have made when residents of different races are asked about their impressions of and experiences in their town as it relates to progress and opportunity.

There is hope for the United States’ future. The large cities tend to overlook small towns but the small towns have big personalities. They are hard workers and patriots, generous and innovative. They may be understated but they are not sitting idly. The entrepreneurial spirit and the imperative to confront problems head on offer lessons that the rest of country would do well to heed. “American Futures” offers lessons on humility and teamwork. Together city and town, large and small, known and unknown, we can advance impressively if we overcome our provincialism to embrace and celebrate our national strengths.

Courtney D. Sharpe is a world traveler who has spent extensive time in the Middle East studying, traveling and working with the Peace Corps. She is a graduate of Northwestern University where she pursued a double degree in International Studies and Religion. 

Max B. regains his title at the Sixth Annual Sixth & I Pickle Eating Contest

photo (1)After dominating the Fourth Annual Sixth & I Pickle Eating Contest, Max B. lost his title in the Fifth Annual contest by 2 ounces.  last week he won it back in a glorious feat of pickle eating.

……………………

It was a frigid January morning when I bought a jar – neigh, a four pound drum – of pickles from Costco.

It’s now almost May and that barrel of Vlassics is still taking up half of my refrigerator.  Those resilient green soldiers have survived a pregnant friend’s visit, a rainquester shut-in, and even a slew of St. Paddy’s day pickle shots.

That being said, what’s taken me five months to eat, I ate in five minutes on Wednesday night.

Why?

To become the two-time Sixth & I pickle eating contest champion.  I have a gift and that gift is the ability to devour, decimate, and metabolize entire crops of cucumbers in one sitting.  I want to share that gift with the world.

Do you have a particular method you use?  Do you practice?

919149_10100717745284497_1175466803_oMy opponents employed different methods, from the two-handed scoop and stuff to the no-handed spit and spew vinegar shower (namely, Ben S).  Every meal for me is practice for an eating contest.  I have no method.  I do no training.  I just simply eat what’s in front of me… all the time.

How did you feel after?

I had a 5-hour flight at 7 AM the next morning.  I got off the plane under the 90 degree Vegas sun with sodium and dill still coursing thick through my veins.  Worth it.

What’s next for the champ?

You tell me.  Anyone, anywhere, anytime.  Whoever thinks they can take on the skinny guy in any other food challenge, I’m in (disclaimer: no pork/shellfish and I hate mayonnaise).

Chutzpah in Motion

Ollie-w-bible-text-lighter-border“My So-Called Jewish Life” was at 8 PM, Saturday, December 15th at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue

The story of the Maccabees is one often told during Hanukkah, but that was not the story those at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue heard on Saturday night.  The stories told on that last night of Hanukkah were similar to the theme of the Maccabee tale as they all featured the presence of perseverance and meaning.  Stories were told courtesy of SpeakeasyDC, a non-profit whose mission is “to give voice to people’s life experiences, support artistic expression, build community, and contribute to DC’s cultural capital and creative economy by promoting and teaching the art of autobiographical storytelling.”

The Saturday evening event, titled “My So-Called Jewish Life”, was the fourth annual event of its kind.  The speakers were invited by founder and Director, Amy Saidman.  Their stories, tones, and styles varied, but a pride in their heritage (whether born into or adopted later in life) was there.  The snarky, self-defeating style typical of Jewish humor also rang true and loud, giving the event an authentic Jewish feel (though the synagogue setting also helped.)

Bonnie Benwick, interim Food Editor of The Washington Post, used audience participation to tell an age old tale, all too common to Jewish hardship: how to make the perfect brisket.  Andy Pollin, co-host of The Sports Reporters on ESPN980, led the audience to gasp as he told the tale of receiving a phone call from Sandy Koufax.  Sara Polon, aka Soupergirl of the (delicious!) DC soup delivery service, recounted a camping trip gone awry with Jordanian Bedouins.  Meleia Egger, returned Peace Corps volunteer liaison, spoke of a dear friend who showed her comfort in Judaism and later inspired her to find prayer.  Hillah Culman is a Program Manager for Pro-Active Performance who met the perfect “NJB” only to realize he wasn’t a Jewish boy at all – leading them to search for an interfaith solution to their relationship.  The story told by Eliot Stein, Managing Editor of Living Social, had the room in hysteria.  He told the story of lying to impress his teacher, writing to her that he became a man when he had a Bar Mitzvah.  Here lays the catch: Stein (despite the suggestion of his name) is not Jewish and never had a Bar Mitzvah.  He tugged on heart strings as he explained how the confusion his name often causes has brought him experiences to be gained from.  John Donvan, an ABC News correspondent, closed the night.  Mr. Donvan, a three-time Emmy winner, told of finding himself at his daughters’ Bat Mitzvah wondering just far he’d go “with this Jewish thing.”  Mr. Donvan was not born Jewish, but always held a deep curiosity for Judaism.  Married to an Israeli, he found he was clinging on to his own heritage as his family around him delved deeper and deeper into Judaism.  He realized, though, that this was the “Jewish thing to do,” holding onto his own heritage.  Also, noted from his storytelling, he speaks excellent Hebrew for a goy.

The storytellers closed the night by lighting a menorah together on stage with Stein controlling the shamash in good humor.  After the show, Stein credited Saidman with being a “tremendous force” in the success of the night. “The night was great.  There was a variety and a good message.  It was a well-rounded event, very telling of the Jewish community.”  His father, who was by his side afterwards, also noted that he “experienced the same name confusion Eliot has his whole life.  It was like hearing my own story, but dramatized.”

Those statements envelope the theme of the night, and a theme of Judaism: we are all in this together, all sharing and living similar stories.  It is up to us to listen and learn from each other.  Everyone who attended the fourth annual “My So-Called Jewish Life” did just that.

 

Shabbat: Pure and Simple: An Interview with Rabbi Scott About Upcoming Events at Sixth&I

Shabbat: Pure and Simple will debut on December 15th. Click here for more information.
Rachel: How long have you been in DC now?
Rabbi Scott: I’ve been in DC four months now. I love it. In L.A., walking 15 minutes gets you to your mailbox.  Here, you can enjoy the entire city.
Rachel: What is your favorite part of DC/the DC Jewish community?
Rabbi Scott: Right now it’s a tossup between my amazing job at Sixth & I (not to mention having concerts and authors in house) and the Dupont Farmers Market. Dolcezza is a close third.
Rachel: What programs/events/services do you provide?
Rabbi Scott: You can expect more from me in the coming months, but we’re starting a series called What It Takes- short term, high intensity classes with friends, designed to get practical, useful Jewish knowledge so that you can connect to services, holidays, life cycles,  and learning -and feel comfortable in them all.  With Sarah Lawson and Josh Cogan’s help, Sixth & I is starting Havdallah with the Three Star Collective- a chance to hear great music and poetry inside Havdallah (the service separating Shabbat and the rest of the week).  It’ll be the perfect way to start a Saturday night.  Jamming is encouraged. We’ll be relaunching the Sixth Street Minyan in February.  The details aren’t out yet, but expect an extraordinary new Friday night opportunity.
Rachel: Your service is called, “Shabbat: Pure and Simple.”  What do you mean by “pure and simple”?
Rabbi Scott: It’s hard to step in Judaism cold.  Our kind of prayer is thick and rich, moves quickly, and assumes a lot of knowledge.  I know people who’ve been coming to Shabbat every week for 30 years, and still don’t know the service.  It’s not easy to learn by osmosis.  Shabbat Pure and Simple does two things: it slows the service down so that participants can focus more deeply on what they’re doing and saying, learn to understand why things are, and, even for the pro’s, simply have enough time to concentrate; it also provides an important opportunity for those who’ve never experienced Shabbat morning to come in, know what’s going on, even help lead the service if they want to.

Rachel: This is Sixth and I’s first Saturday service.  Why did you choose to lead a Saturday service?
Rabbi Scott: We created a Shabbat morning service because of demand.  After reaching out, our people told us that they were looking for a morning experience.

Jewish Guy of the Week – Aaron

What brought you to your current position?
Honestly, the initial thing that brought me to this position was www.JewishJobs.com. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to work in the Jewish community at that point in my life, but I was working at a sleep away camp the summer after graduating college and my director pushed me to look at the site and see if anything might interest me. I decided to give it a shot and applied to Sixth & I. After meeting the people at Sixth & I (which was only a staff of 4 at that point), I was immediately impressed by their commitment to creative thinking and infusing arts and culture with contemporary religion. A few interviews later, I was hired as the Family Programming Director (due to my camp background) and the Finance Associate (due to my business experience). Not long after, I passed off those duties and became involved in a couple of areas that were more appealing to me: Live Entertainment (music, comedy, film) and Young Professional programming.

 

Many know you as “The 6th and I Trivia Guy.” What goes into the preparation for trivia nights?
I have to give credit where credit is due. The format I have established for the Sixth & I Trivia Night came from a Trivia Night that I used to attend every week during my senior year of college at a local bar run by a friend of mine. The range of questions was just right and the relevance to our age group and interests was always spot on. That’s what I try to offer here, always with new interesting twists. After more than three years of offering a monthly trivia contest, it gets harder and harder to find new, quality questions each time, but we do our best to search the web, pick each other’s brains and try to develop new, attractive rounds and questions for trivia veterans, as well as people that are stepping into Sixth & I for the very first time.

When you’re not working, where can we find you?
Working at Sixth & I has a lot of great perks, but also comes along with a lot of long hours, so when I can get away, I like to.  Whether that’s a trip to the Bahamas, hiking in the Shenandoah or visiting friends and family in Philly or NYC, it’s a nice change of pace. When in town, I love to try out new restaurants, see shows at the 930 Club, see a new movie (often at the E St Cinema) or just hang with friends. And on Sundays during football season you can always find me at a sports bar cheering on my beloved Buffalo Bills.

What would your dream event be for 6th and I?
We often talk about this, and it’s generally in terms of what we do. As the Director of Live Entertainment and a huge Counting Crows fan, I have always wanted to get Adam Duritz (lead singer of Counting Crows) here to do a solo piano concert.

What new initiatives will we see this year?
Last year you saw us unveil Sixth & Rye, the first kosher food truck in D.C. This initiative actually came from a contest we ran called “Sixth & I’s Next Big Idea.” We received hundreds of submissions last year and the food truck became our winning idea. It just so happens that we’re currently running the contest for 2012. You can find more information about it on our website. The winner gets a $500 Visa gift card! There will be plenty more new, exciting things in 2012, but unfortunately, I can’t reveal anything yet…stay tuned!

 

Deconstructing Rabbi Shira’s speech

Stephen Richer is a co-founder and director of Gather the Jews.  The comments in this piece reflect solely his views.

The “6th in the City Shabbat” is always a blast.  I love singing along with the guitar of Rick Recht and his volunteer vocalists (including former Jewish Girl of the Week Erika), and I love jumping up for the super-soft-and-delicious challah at the end of services.

There’s also Rabbi Shira Stutman’s comments on world events and/or the Torah portion.  They’re always inspired, and I often nod in agreement.  When I disagree, I usually don’t say anything, but this time I have to scratch the itch.

On Friday, June 10, Rabbi Stutman offered an impassioned speech on gay rights: it’s lamentable that certain members of our society are still treated unequally under the law.  I couldn’t agree more – equality under the law is long overdue for gay Americans.  I also agree with Rabbi Stutman that we Jews should help advance the effort, and I salute her for joining the Pride march on Shabbat.

But Rabbi Stutman also quickly referenced the right to affordable health care when speaking about gay rights, as if the two are commensurate.  They’re not.

The gay rights movement is multi-faceted, but gay marriage has certainly become the focal point.  The argument here is that gay people should be treated as equals under the law – they should be able to celebrate marriage just like any other freely contracting adults.  And we me mean true quality under the law – equal in name and function (the civil unions argument is nonsense).

An analogous situation for health care would be if we systematically prohibited certain people from purchasing health care.  If redheads (I’m one) were legally prohibited from buying health care simply as a result of their being genetically different, then we would have a parallel situation to gay marriage.

But that’s not what is meant by those who argue for the “right to affordable health care.”  This argument posits that it is not enough for law to allow all citizens the right to purchase health care (which we currently have), but rather, we should make sure that all citizens have the means, in addition to the legal right, to buy health care.

Say what you will about the merits of that argument, but it is not analogous to the gay marriage movement.  For it to be comparable the battle for gay rights would have to look like this:  Not only must we remove the legal prohibition against gays marrying, but we must also provide incapable gays with the means of doing so.  Those gays who are socially handicapped – and therefore lack the skills of wooing a spouse – should be provided with classes on social interaction such that all people can acquire a marriage certificate.

The two cases are clearly not the same, and I daresay the comparison cheapens the plight of gays ever so slightly.  Gays are, by law, prohibited from marriage.  There is not one group in the country that is, by law, prohibited from buying health care.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Street Meat: 6th and Rye

The Taster Platter

 

Today marks the beginning of a new epoch and era. Finally the Street Truck scene in DC has made it way into the Jewish Community thanks to the efforts of 6th and Eye Synagogue. Many folks came out from all over DC to see what the meat on the street was all about.

The event started off with Executive Director, Esther Foer, thanking all the people and parties who were responsible for making this magical meat treat a reality. Later, a Rabbi ordained the food by lifting his chip to the sky, his mouth to microphone, and pronouncing the blessing on ‘Fruits from the Field’. After that, the crowd of media and friends politely approached the truck tasting a couscous item, a mixed slaw, a dill pickle, and a corned beef sandwich.

Gather The Jews wants to warmly welcome Sixth and Rye to the street eat scene, and wish them all the best of luck on their future food fun.

 

The Crowd Ready To Gnosh

 

Sixth & Rye is here!!!!!

I just made my way back from Sixth & Rye’s opening day.  I got there at 11:30 (when it opened) and stayed until noon.  About 150 people in line according to my count.  It wasn’t moving too quickly, but the enthusiasm seemed high.  I would guess about a 30 – 40 minute wait from the back of the line.  Most of the people I talked to ordered the corned beef sandwich (I didn’t order any thing because I was walking around and couldn’t hold a place in line — but please write in if you ate something.)

Here’s a few pictures, and the interviews are below (sorry for the poor cinematography… was just holding my iPhone).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview 1

 

And the winner of the 3rd annual Afikomen Scavenger Hunt is…

Is…  the matter of some controversy.

On Sunday, April 10, approximately 120 young professionals joined together at Sixth & I to compete in the Third Annual Afikomen Scavenger Hunt.   The contest sent the teams to 10 different locations throughout Chinatown. Each stop required the team to perform a task or answer a riddle that related to one of the ten plagues.  After accomplishing the task or answering the riddle, teams received a clue that led to the next location.

Examples:  At the “frog plague station,” teams had to leap frog over the other members of the team.  At the “lice station,” teams had to ask a random passer by to pour a cup of water on the head of one of their team members.  At the “gnats/flies station” teams had to volley a shuttlecock back-and-forth 20 times.

The final clue led the teams to Rocket Bar where the winning piece of matzah was to be hastily devoured by the first there.

Three teams arrived within a matter of seconds.   Each team made its case for eternal glory…  The ruling went to The Thundering Yogatos (pictured below), but we might yield the GTJ forum to a few different members of the different teams to make their cases (in a thoroughly non-serious way) later today or this week.

Who knows?  If the arguments are convincing enough, it might lead to the awarding of a second gold medal (2002 SLC Winter Games.  I was at this second medal awarding!  Utah w00t!)

Because nobody wants the bronze medal…  Just ask NBA superstar Carmello Anthony how he feels about bronze medals...  (go to second 50 of this YouTube clip.  Warning.  Offensive language).

Thanks to all the groups who sponsored this event (Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Birthright Israel NEXT, Sixth & I, DC JCC).  One of the best events of the year.

Full disclosure:  I was on The Thundering Yogatos.  🙂