the jazz baroness

On Sunday I attended a screening of the documentary “The Jazz Baroness” at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center, the kickoff event of the Washington Jewish Music Festival.

I can’t really remember what motivated me to buy a ticket: I’m not a music person, so I generally don’t even skim the program listings for this annual event. But something must have intrigued me about this documentary.

The film was written, directed, edited, and produced by Hannah Rothschild, whose great-aunt Pannonica, known to everyone as “Nica,” had a long friendship with Thelonious Monk, from when they met in Paris in 1954 until his death (at her house in Weehawken) in 1982.

By all accounts, they were not lovers, although Monk’s son tells the filmmaker that he believes Nica to have been “in love” with his dad. Indeed, both Nica and Monk were married when they met; Nica’s husband, Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, divorced her in 1956, at least in part because of her carrying on with New York jazz musicians.

The relationship seems to have been more one of patronage and caregiving on the part of Nica, who simply adored Monk’s music. In the film, she (voiced by the incomparable Helen Mirren) tells the story of the first time she heard it. In 1951, she stopped by a friend’s apartment in New York on the way to the airport to catch a flight to Mexico, where she was living at the time with de Koenigswarter and her children. He played for her “‘Round Midnight,” and she was completely captivated. She’d never heard anything like it, and she made her friend play the record over and over again. She missed her flight back to Mexico, and shortly thereafter, she moved to New York.

For his part, Monk was a musical genius but suffered from fairly severe mental health issues (undiagnosed in his lifetime, but later speculated to be manic despression, bipolar disorder, and/or schizophrenia). Several friends and his long-time manager also testified to his use of marijuana and heroin. Another friend explained that Nica, together with Monk’s wife, Nellie, shouldered the burden of caring for Monk, as his behavior was too much for one person to manage. Nica even took the rap for Monk when they were arrested for marijuana possession on the way to a gig in Delaware.

Overall, I liked the film. I certainly learned a lot, and I *loved* that Monk’s music played all throughout the film. You really can’t go wrong with his bebop. A few small items distracted me: Hannah Rothschild’s voice sounds remarkably like Helen Mirren’s, so at times during voiceovers it was hard to tell whose experience was being narrated. And a few of the interviewees were only identified during their first appearance in the film, leaving me to wonder in later scenes on what authority they were speaking. (Compounding this problem is that many of the Rothchilds interviewed were old, wrinkly, and therefore practically indistinguishable, women.)

My other complaint concerned the filmmaker’s attempt to show parallels between Nica’s and Monk’s lives. I don’t think that her search was in vain, but when she likened Monk’s upbringing — the son of a sharecropper in rural North Carolina — to Nica’s childhood — a member of one of Europe’s most prominent dynasties — she strained my credulity.

Mostly, though, I very much enjoyed the story of this “beautiful friendship.”

first person

Yesterday I heard a Holocaust survivor speak in-person for the first time in my life. A few weeks ago, after finishing Refuge in Hell, with its many survivor interviews, I realized that I hadn’t ever heard a survivor speak about his/her experience firsthand, save the film that runs at the end of the permanent exhibit “The Holocaust” at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I went to the museum for the first time in the spring of 1995, right after it opened, and I haven’t been back since (except for a quick visit to the gift shop — for classroom supplies with my mom — last July). But I’ve been thinking about the site a lot recently since Stephen Johns was murdered one year ago today.

On June 10, 2009, a man dressed in a confederate coat walked up to the museum’s entrance. Johns, a security guard at the museum, saw him and moved to open the door for the 88-year-old man, who then opened fire on the museum with the rifle hidden in his coat. Johns died at GWU Hospital, where my friend Rabbi Tamara Miller, as the Director of Spiritual Care, was called to minister to the Johns family — a job which later played a role in the hospital’s firing her in July. I’ve been working for Rabbi Miller for the past six months, helping her to build her new private practice in the wake of her dismissal.

This is how I found myself, a little before 1:00 p.m., making my way to the museum to hear Inge Katzenstein (née Berg) as part of its “First Person” series.

I was already thinking about senseless loss of life as I walked up to the building. And my sadness only increased as I navigated to the Rubenstein auditorium. The architecture of the museum is purposefully inescapable. Imposing. You can’t pretend that you’re anywhere except a memorial to the genocide of 6 million people, even if you just want to hear a nice Jewish lady tell about her family’s escape from Germany to Kenya, and then to the United States.

After a brief introduction by (the rather unfortunately named) Bill Benson — an introduction which included several pictures of the Berg family, including the one above of Inge, her sister, and her cousin — Inge sat down with Bill for an informal interview.

A member of an observant Jewish family, Inge lived in a small village outside of Cologne. Kristallnacht was the breaking point for her parents, who had been trying to leave Germany since 1933, but had been denied entry to the United States. (Inge recalled that they had a quota number, but it was so high, she quipped, “I doubt it would have even come up by today.”) Her father illegally left Germany for Holland right after Kristallnacht, and through a cousin who was a lawyer in the then British colony, 17 of her family members obtained visas for entry into Kenya.

Inge’s mother was left alone to manage the clean-up of the family’s house — which had been ransacked, and all items within damaged or destroyed, during Kristallnacht — as well as the orchestration of the family’s move to Africa. In May 1939, Inge, her mother, and her sister left Cologne for good; they made their way first to Switzerland and later to Genoa, Italy, where they caught a German boat to Mombasa. (At that point, the Germans were apparently happy to help Jews leave Europe.) And the boat even provided kosher meals!

Inge, her mother, and her sister lived in Nairobi while her father, his parents, and an uncle and a cousin ran the farm in the highlands. Eventually though, the political climate in Kenya became uncomfortable for the Bergs, who were considered to be Germans by the British and by the Kenyans, and in 1947, they immigrated to the United States.

I especially loved hearing all of the little details in Inge’s story. Her observant family managed to keep kosher even after such customs were outlawed in Germany through a cousin who had been a kosher butcher; after the Nuremburg Laws were passed, his business continued to slaughter animals but fired a shot afterwards, so that anyone listening wouldn’t suspect a ritual killing.

Inge recalled being driven with her grandparents out of her village to the relative safety of the countryside after the day after Kristallnacht. Her grandmother’s leg was in a cast, and Inga related how her grandmother used the cast to keep her on the floor of the car, so she and her sister couldn’t see what had happened to the village.

My favorite story was one that illustrated Inge’s self-described “rebellious” nature. A boy called her “a dirty Jew,” and Inge, tired of such insults, gave him a bloody nose. “And then I ran,” she grinned.

merry strasmas!

First, a hat tip to the Washington Post for that bon mot.

Last night, my husband and I ventured out to Nationals Park to see the much-hyped debut of the Nationals’ new 21-year-old ace, Stephen Strasburg (versus the Pittsburgh Pirates). He didn’t disappoint.

Joe and I left our apartment near downtown D.C. around 5:00 for the 7:05 p.m. start, and the train was still packed by the time we got to Navy Yard. The excitement in the air inside the stadium was palpable, a feeling not at all fitting for a match-up between two sub-.500 teams.

Even the elements conspired in Strasburg’s favor. It was absolutely perfect ballpark weather: 68 degrees, and not a cloud in the sky. Joe and I found our seats in the infield gallery, along the third baseline, in section 306. Among the sold-out crowd (pictured here in a photo taken by Joe on his iPhone), practically every other person wore a “37” red or white T-shirt.

Ken Burns (“not local,” Joe informs me, after checking his iPhone) threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and then the crowd was on its feet as Strasburg calmly jogged to the mound. There were so many camera flashes during his first pitch that I’m amazed the umpire was able to make out the tiny white speck in their midst. But he apparently did, calling . . . a ball.

But Strasburg doesn’t throw balls!

After a rocky start (it took him eight pitches to throw two strikes), Strasburg got the first two batters to line out and ground out, respectively. And when he fanned Lastings Milledge (a former Nat) for his first strikeout of the game, the crowd erupted into pandemonium.

Strasburg ended up striking out 14 over seven innings, including the last seven batters he faced. He walked none. By about the sixth inning, the crowd was again on its feet, cheering every pitch — and booing the home plate umpire when he dared to call a ball.

And the Nats gave their new ace uncustomary run support. Ryan Zimmerman hit a solo homerun in the bottom of the first, reminiscent of his walk-off homer during the park’s inaugural game in March 2008, the last time I saw Nationals Park so packed. Adam Dunn hit a two-run shot in the sixth, which Josh Willingham immediately followed with a solo shot of his own. That turned out to be enough, but Zimmerman managed to score again in the eighth.

The only part of the night that was a disappointment was the Presidents Race. Usually (rather insultingly) billed as “the main event” during the fourth inning, the promotional gimmick pits the four U.S. presidents on Mt. Rushmore in a foot race around the edge of the field from the Nats’ bullpen to home plate. Perennial loser “Teddy” is a favorite of mine, and the internets had been buzzing about whether the powers that be would finally let him win, in honor of the new era for the franchise that Strasburg was said to be ushering in. But alas, while Strasburg walked away from the game with his first “W,” Teddy just racked up another “L.”

Earlier in the day, the Nationals said that they had credentialed more than 200 members of the press for the game. The D.C. Sports Bog reported that Willie Harris, upon seeing the media crowd, remarked, “Damn, is this the World Series?”

Jesus of Nats-areth (h/t Steve Fox), indeed.

the first night (and day)

I’ve just turned 18 years old, and I am on my first trip abroad. (Or perhaps my second, if you count the spring break seven months earlier that I spent in Cancún, which I don’t, because back then you didn’t need a passport to go to Mexico, and I didn’t speak a word of Spanish either at the resort pool or at the local bars, the only places I went the entire week.)

I’ve just gotten off the plane in San José, Costa Rica. I should be at college, but six months earlier I had collapsed, a sobbing mess, on the floor of my bedroom when my mom told me that she and my dad couldn’t afford my dream of Brown University. Through my tears, I cursed the college counselor who had gotten me excited about Brown but had never warned me that the financial aid package might fall short — even after my mom’s negotiations with the admissions office.

I had earned a National Merit Scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin, where both my parents and my maternal grandparents had matriculated, and I had been accepted to its prestigious Plan II Honors Program. The award covered tuition and fees for four years. But I was 17 and wanted to get as far away from my parents as possible — not to mention not do anything remotely like what they had done.

Declaring it “unfair” that they were unwilling to pay $20,000 a year for my education, I announced that I wasn’t going to college after all — at least not right away. I deferred acceptance to UT and Plan II and arranged for my scholarship to go into effect the next fall. Then I used the earnings from my summer job as as administrative assistant at an oil and gas company — at a rate of $7.50 an hour, which I remember seemed like a fortune at the time — to sign up with a program called Interim.

Interim was a fairly unsophisticated, family-run program when I got involved, led still by its founder and his daughter. They connected me with the Centro de Educación Creativa, which accepted me as a volunteer for three months. The Centro was then a bilingual elementary school (it now goes up to grade 11) in Monteverde, a small mountain town in the country’s famed cloud forest. Upon arriving in San José, I was make my way to the Hotel Aranjuez. The next day, I would take the twice-daily bus to Monteverde, where a man named Chris, the school’s executive director, would meet the bus and take me to my new home.

But I’m still in the airport, paralyzed by the tasks that lay before me: I have to exchange money, and find a cab, and communicate my destination to the cab, and then spend the night by myself in a hotel. My mom later told me that putting me on the plane to San José was the hardest thing she had ever done. Of course, I was blissfully unaware of her concerns. Hell, I didn’t even know enough to be concerned myself. I was too excited about leaving Houston, about doing something different. It was only as the plane began to descend in Central America, a place I had never been and where I knew no one, that I began to wonder what exactly I was doing.

I don’t remember exchanging money and only vaguely recall the cab ride, which seemed to take forever (and to wind through some sketchy neighborhoods). Since I had no idea where the hotel was, I could only fervently hope that the cab driver was actually making his way to it.

I checked in — that Chris fellow made good on his word and had made a reservation in my name, as promised! — and was shown to my room. I remember the feeling of utter terror that I felt when the door closed and I was all alone in a foreign room in a foreign country. What had I been thinking?

I called my mom with her credit card and tried to hold back my tears — and my desire to beg her to let me come home again that night. I fell asleep crying into my pillow.

My bus wasn’t until 2:30 p.m. the next afternoon, and I spent the entire morning in the hotel. I tried to talk myself into at least walking around the neighborhood, but I was too scared. (It was a sketchy neighborhood!) I ate breakfast in the lobby/dining area and read until it seemed reasonable to call a taxi to take me to the bus station. I arrived an hour before the bus was scheduled to depart, and I waited, still terrified. (Did San José have nothing but sketchy neighborhoods?) The time of departure came and went, and there wasn’t even a sign of the bus. I began to panic. What if I had missed the bus? What if Chris had gotten the time wrong? What if everyone in Costa Rica was having a laugh at my expense and there was no bus to Monteverde?

At about 3, a taxi deposited at the station what was obviously another American student, and he seemed to be waiting for the bus to Monteverde, too. He had with him only small duffel bag and a guitar, and he sat down and began to pluck at its strings, totally unconcerned with a) the fact that he was late to the bus and b) the fact that there was no bus! His cool, collected calm grated on me in my disquiet. He noticed me and introduced himself. “You going to Monteverde?” Relieved, despite myself, to be able to talk to someone about my bus concerns, I opened the flood gates, confiding in him my theory that in all likelihood, the bus to Monteverde didn’t even exist!

He stared at me for a long second before snorting and bending back over his guitar. “We’re in a different time zone now,” he said drily. “It’s only 2 o’clock.”