AJ and I meet one April afternoon on the top floor of the Georgetown Capitol One Café. 70 minutes into our 45 minute interview, I realize I’ve only asked about half the questions I’d planned for. We dive deep into his experience in DMV community theater, competitive improvisational punning, the difficulty of moving 2600 miles to a new city just months before the pandemic, the beauty of robust public transportation. I still want to know more, but that’s alright — I know I’ll probably see AJ again, grinning at new friends at a Happy Hour, gladhanding in the theater lobby after his latest show.
But, until then, read the full conversation below!
Samuel: You’re from LA, originally. How’d you end up in the DMV?
AJ: I studied Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at UCLA, about ten miles from where I grew up. Late in my college life, I discovered that I…hated engineering. But I loved the data science I’d done during an internship, so I decided to pivot. When I was figuring out what to do after college, I knew I could stay in LA with my family, but I didn’t want to do that – I wanted to try something new, something different, spread my wings. I had two friends from college moving to DC together and I went: Hmm, I bet they could use a third roommate!
Samuel: Split the rent a little more.
AJ: And DC has a lot of need for data scientists. Win, win, win. I could try something new, be around friends, and potentially help my career.
Samuel: So, what’s kept you here for the last four years?
AJ: I really like the DMV. It’s a great place to live – the only downsides are the humidity and mosquitoes. DC is a vibrant city with great public transportation. In Los Angeles, everything is very car-centric. DC always has things going on – art, theater – and it’s close together.
Samuel: How did you begin to really feel at home?
AJ: I’d done community and student theater in college and really enjoyed it. When I moved to DC, I joined a bunch of theater Facebook groups and found the Georgetown Gilbert and Sullivan Society (GGSS). A lot of DMV community theater is inaccessible if you can’t drive, but GGSS was having open auditions and they were right on the DC Circulator. I was cast in Much Ado About Nothing and have just kept doing shows with GGSS. They’re a really great group. I love them.
Samuel: Apart from making those connections with people, how has performing impacted you?
AJ: I think of myself as pretty introverted. People are surprised when I say that because I give off this bubbly, comic energy. But being around a bunch of people can sap your social battery.
Had I not gotten involved with theater, choosing to get out of my comfort zone by getting up in front of people, I think I would be less of a well-rounded person. When I need to give presentations at work, I can do that and not be as nervous. Or, at least, pretend to not be as nervous.
Samuel: I was going to say – I saw you at the April Happy Hour! Speaking from a place of relating…that’s like a quintessentially tough kind of place to be an introvert.
AJ: I moved here in August 2019. Even before Covid, I didn’t go to anything. I was looking for a job and didn’t want to be going to Shabbat dinners or happy hours without being able to answer the DC small talk question [Editor’s note: Come on, y’all, we can do better than “What do you do?”]. I felt embarrassed.
So, when people started hosting events again, and GatherDC’s Happy Hours started again, I told myself: This is my new home. This is where I’m trying to build a life. I need to get out and meet people, and I thought there was no better way than to look for events in the Jewish community. In college, I’d found that was a great way to meet people with similar backgrounds and similar interests.
I’ve made more of an effort to be the “guy who comes to stuff.” A dependable person. It takes a lot of effort – the social battery – but it’s so fun to hang out with people, to find out what’s going on in their lives, and to build those friendships. I’ve reached a point where there are people who I recognize and have rapport with. We can pick up a conversation that we started at the last Happy Hour. You know, hopefully, these relationships grow into genuine friendships. That’s the goal – but, for now, I can play the version of me who is already friends with the people I’m befriending.
Samuel: You mentioned seeking specifically Jewish spaces as you’ve settled into the DMV – what does your Judaism look like right now?
AJ: My family is – and I was raised – Modern Orthodox. When I got to college, I saw other people living their Judaism in a different way and thought those methods of practice were, well…more “fun” isn’t the right word.
Samuel: True to you?
AJ: I just reached a point where I wasn’t feeling the connection to Judaism in the way that it’s practiced in the Orthodox community. I felt like continuing to practice that way was pushing me away from Judaism or negatively impacting other parts of my life. I’d try to go to Morning Minyan to make sure they had ten people, but then it would run late and I’d miss the first half of my morning classes. I felt like I was falling behind.
Samuel: What’s changed for you since then?
AJ: Some of those “restrictive” practices don’t feel right for me. But they’re things that I don’t mind doing with friends and family. My roommates from the move to DC were Modern Orthodox so, out of respect for them, we kept the kitchen Kosher and practiced Shabbat. Growing up, [practicing in the Modern Orthodox tradition] never felt difficult because I’d never experienced anything else. Now, I don’t actively make decisions to follow those practices, but I love many of the traditions, the holidays, the culture. I love a good Shabbat meal with friends and Settlers of Catan afterward.
Samuel: What else from your upbringing do you find yourself returning to or actively seeking out?
AJ: This could be my theater background, but I really enjoy all the songs. Even when you don’t know what exactly the language means, we all know the words. We all know the tunes. Some friends and I had a shortened Passover Seder and, even though we came from all these different backgrounds, we all shared the songs of the Passover Seder. It’s a cool thing that ties us all together.
Samuel: Okay, a couple quick ones to finish us out…I need to ask about the pun competition. What’s that about?
AJ: Every three months, DC Improv hosts an event called Pun DMV. Like Run DMC.
Samuel: Ugh. That’s good.
AJ: There’s two segments: freestyle and a tournament. This is my first time competing in the freestyle side – I’m writing a monologue on fish.
Samuel: What’s the best piece of art you’ve encountered recently?
AJ: The “If I Were a Fish” Tik Tok that went super viral. I thought it was beautiful.
Samuel: You can invite any three people to Shabbat dinner – who’s at your table?
AJ: Adam Sandler. Robin Williams. I think he’d be a mensch at dinner.
And then my grandfather, who passed away when I was a baby. I never knew him, but everything everyone tells me about him…he worked in computer science. He was warm, and fun, and everyone loved being around him. He seems like the kind of person that I would really have gotten along with. I would love to meet him.
Samuel: Last one: finish the sentence for me. When Jews of the DMV gather…
AJ: They play “Jewish Geography.”
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