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Jul 4 17

Objects of attention

As June gave way to July, religion had quite a week. First, a monument to the Ten Commandments that had just been erected in Arkansas by the innocuous-sounding American History and Heritage Foundation was demolished by an angry citizen. Alleged to have yelled ‘Freedom,’ as his car plowed into the three-ton stone sculpture, he made his opposition to the planting of religiously-themed statuary on public grounds dramatically clear, giving Moses, who had angrily dashed the Ten Commandments to the ground the first time around, a run for his money.

Flag. Flickr/Paul Wiethorn

Flag. Flickr/Paul Wiethorn

Ever since the 1950s, when the Fraternal Order of Eagles first set about depositing large-scale monuments to the Ten Commandments in the public square, some Americans have expressed grave concern at what they see as a violation of the First Amendment. In each instance, they’ve turned to the courts, couching their opposition in judicial terms.

It’s too early to tell whether what happened in Arkansas is an aberration or a portent of things to come. But one thing is already clear: Smashing the Ten Commandments is not the way to go.

Meanwhile, miles to the north, in D.C., a counter narrative has emerged, one that celebrates rather than pillories America’s relationship to religious expression. For the first time in more than a century, the National Museum of American History mounted an exhibition that explored the variety of ways in which the citizens of the early republic — a polyglot lot, if ever there was one — gave voice and shape to faith.

Curated by the estimable and widely-published Peter Manseau, “Religion in Early America” has something for everyone: George Washington’s christening robe, as pristine as a new-born babe; a first edition of the Book of Mormon; the easily-transportable wooden pulpit used by George Whitfield when preaching outdoors; a church bell produced by Paul Revere; a thirteen-page text in Arabic outlining the basics of Islamic practice and a Torah scroll that had been burnt by Hessian soldiers during the Revolutionary War, courtesy of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. (The last item, I have to say, gave me pause: Why is the only object in the exhibition that represents the Jews in a state of complete and utter disrepair? I have no doubt that its deployment was well-intentioned; even so, viewers might associate Judaism with destruction, not a pleasing prospect.)

A jewel of a show, “Religion in Early America” is well worth a trip to our nation’s capital. Nothing if not timely, it reminds us that diversity and with it, freedom of expression, is our greatest asset.

May 15 17

What’s in a name?

Having spent a number of years exploring the ways in which the Ten Commandments (a k a ‘the Decalogue’) have insinuated themselves into American popular culture, I don’t think I have ever come across them in the world of dance.

Ballerina photo shoot

Ballerina photo shoot. Flickr/David Yu

Songs, yes; movies, for sure; even an abundance of down-to- earth, helpful hints such as The Ten Commandments of Quiet Automobile Driving (“toot less”). But a dance? Never — and certainly not a ballet.

Imagine, then, my delight in learning that a piece called “Decalogue,” the work of New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer, Justin Peck, would be making its debut on Friday evening, May 12, right on the heels of the publication of Set in Stone, my new book about the commandments. That it featured ten dancers piqued my curiosity all the more.

Were the stars aligned? The Ten Commandments trending? Might there be a fortuitous convergence of interest in these ancient dos and don’ts? Galvanized by the possibility, or, more to the point, eager to establish a connection between book and ballet, I emailed the communications folks at the New York City Ballet as well as the dance critics of the New York Times — and held my breath.

Eventually, I heard back from the associate director of communications at the New York City Ballet, who wrote:

“Just to provide some information, the score for Justin Peck’s new work is called The Decalogue, and the ballet is simply named after the score. There is no other connection or meaning beyond that, and the ballet itself is purely abstract.”

Though disappointed by this bit of news, I was still eager to see for myself and, as luck would have it, “Decalogue” was on my Sunday afternoon subscription. It turns out that apart from the piece deploying ten dancers and having ten sections, (each marked by a Roman numeral), there was nothing else, near as I could tell, that invoked, let alone evoked, the ten commandments.

Alastair Macauley, the chief dance critic of the Times, agreed, writing “if ‘The Decalogue’ title refers to Ten Commandments, they surely aren’t those in the Bible.”

Oh well … Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the old saying goes. Besides, conjuring up new ways to convey the ancient biblical text is fun and keeps me on my toes — so to speak.

Apr 23 17

Book-making: Part two

When last we left off, I was in search of a narrative that would weld the various elements of my research into a book.

Book cover, Set in Stone.

Book cover, Set in Stone.

Finding a through-line and devising a plot took me to lots of places. It had me perched precariously atop a fire escape on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to see what I could see of the silhouette of a now-vanished stained glass window that had once featured the Ten Commandments in the round.

It also took the form of a class field trip to Trenton, New Jersey, where my students were charged with locating a six foot monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state capital. You’d think that would be a walk in the park, but it took some doing. The monument, somewhat the worse for wear, was tucked away in a thicket of trees.

My pursuit of perspective brought me even further afield to the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in Coshocton, Ohio, whose holdings include an allegedly ancient relic of the Decalogue exhumed by amateur archaeologists on the eve of the Civil War, and to Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. Its glorious sanctuary features a 1905 piece of Americana in which Moses receives the Ten Commandments against the background of El Capitan rather than Mount Sinai.

Closer to home, my search for an overarching framing device took me to the steps of the United States Supreme Court where, nearly a century after the Moses-in-America stained-glass window took shape, champions of the Decalogue brandished cardboard versions of the tablets as they circled the courthouse, anxiously waiting to hear whether or not the public display of the biblical code was constitutional.

It would be nice to say that once I settled down to the business of writing, everything — the stained-glass windows, archaeological relics, faux Decalogues and the primary and secondary literature that I had consulted over the years — fell into place, enabling me to coax a coherent narrative out of so many disparate bits and pieces.

No such luck. Another year came and went and then another…

Eventually, though, thanks to the alchemy of writing and a lot of staring at the computer screen, things came together. I found my voice and a structure to contain it. And behold: a book.

Apr 2 17

Book-making: Part one

Eight years, 10 months and 5 days after I started out on the cultural trek that resulted in my writing a book about America’s fascination with the Ten Commandments, Set in Stone comes into the world. I never imagined this project would take as long as it did.

Book cover, Set in Stone.

Book cover, Set in Stone.

From past experience, I was keenly aware that book-making takes time and patience. Even so, in working on this particular project I felt one with my forebears, the ancient Israelites wandering around the desert with no end insight. Would I ever reach my destination? Or, more to the plaintive point, why was this taking so long?

I could point an accusatory finger at the intrusions at the outside world, at least for starters. Aging parents and their subsequent deaths in quick succession, coupled with a new academic position, replete with administrative responsibilities, diverted me from my appointed rounds. These challenges demanded my immediate attention to the exclusion of all else. The Ten Commandments would have to wait.

But that was just the half of it. Writing about the ancient dos and don’ts, let alone coming up with something new to say about them, turned out to be a daunting enterprise — far more than I bargained for. Calling for the patience of a Job and the mental agility of a Sherlock Holmes — and I was neither — it entailed sifting through a voluminous and varied body of material: texts upon texts, paintings and poster art, comic books and court cases, music and film.

Having abundant material on which to draw was a mixed blessing. It wasn’t so much a matter of competing voices, though that certainly slowed things down, as it was the absence of a clear through-line. Discerning a pattern, an argument, a claim about these biblical passages and their tenacious hold on the American imagination eluded me.

Sure, I could have taken the curatorial high road, showcasing the Ten Commandments of this and that and the third thing. But I was writing a book, not mounting an exhibition, even one with the potential to be lively and engaging. I was in need of a narrative.

To be continued….

Mar 12 17

Presence

Back in the day when I was a high school student at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, the teachers of Judaic subjects such as Bible, Hebrew literature and Jewish history took attendance. They would call out a name and the person attached to it would respond — or not.

Set in Stone America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments

Introduction to Jenna’s website, designed by Erik Mace.

What rendered this rather ordinary practice somewhat unusual was the variety of responses to it. A simple, unreflective answer would simply not do. A competitive bunch in this and everything else, we vied with one another as to the most creative or humorous reply. Some of us stood up when our names were called; others acknowledged the teacher’s authority with a flourish of the hand. Still others stayed in their seats, their hands at their side, and either bellowed or whispered a world-weary “yes.” A number of my classmates who liked the sound of their names repeated them. A few of us, myself included, preferred the directness of the Hebrew expression: “po,” we would say. “Here.”

At the time, I thought the use of “po” was not only strategic, but amusing, too. Such a tiny word — more of a sound than a concept — struck me as funny. Though my particular brand of adolescent humor has long since disappeared along with my youth, I still find “po” funny — or, perhaps more to the point, endearing. Although I was hardly mindful of it when in high school, there’s an innocence, a sweetness, to the manner in which the word registers presence.

I’ve been given to thinking about my “po” days as I launch a brand new website to mark the imminent release of my new book, Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments. Working closely with the imaginative and witty, thoughtful and oh-so patient web designer, Erik Mace, I conjured up a digital presence for myself. A complicated bit of business, an exercise in self reflection if ever there was one, it called on me to do a lot more than simply answer “po.”

These days, when someone wants to know if I’m in the room, I respond: www.jennajoselit.com.

Feb 19 17

Seal the deal

In a recent New York Times column about the Trump administration’s rending of the social fabric, David Brooks referred to a discussion among the founding fathers about what kind of seal the newly formed United States had in mind to present to the world.

Great Seal of the U.S.

Great Seal of the U.S./Wikipedia

Then, as now, a nation’s seal was a big deal. Steven Fine relates in his richly textured new book, The Menorah, that much was at stake when it came time for the brand new State of Israel to come up with an appropriate image, a process documented at length in Israeli archives.

Some citizens wanted to see a representation of the ancient, seven-branched candelabrum displayed on the Arch of Titus; others preferred something far less fraught with the history of defeat and persecution. Ultimately, a contemporized version of a menorah, but a menorah all the same, won out, but not before tempers flared, prompting one concerned citizen to pronounce the proposed seal an “aesthetic horror.”

Diverse opinions likewise attended the creation of the Great Seal of the United States. Both Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson championed the notion of putting Moses at its very center. After all, who better epitomized the United States of America than the biblical figure who had successfully led a ragtag band of people to freedom and into the Promised Land? Moses’s appeal to these two founding fathers also rested, Brooks writes, on how he “bound his people to law.”

In the end, though, Franklin and Jefferson’s proposition did not carry the day. Moses was supplanted by the American eagle, which come to think of it, makes a lot of sense. The eagle soars while people remain earthbound.

Jan 29 17

On your feet

As nearly everyone has acknowledged by now, the march in New York, much like its sister demonstration in DC, heartened and uplifted the spirits. Even though it fell on Shabbat — or, better yet, precisely because it coincided with the traditional Jewish day of rest — amcha, the people in all their variegatedness, myself included, were on the move, bringing their collective values into the public sphere and onto the street. A memorable experience, from start to finish.

Flickr/martathegoodone

On the heels of the march, while back in DC a few days later, I tripped over my own feet, landing in the emergency room at GW’s hospital where I, along with many, many others, spent the better part of an entire Tuesday awaiting treatment. All I could think of as I sat there, just a few blocks away from the White House, was the chip, chip, chipping away of our health care system.

While subsequently nursing my wounds, I had occasion to make my way through Radical Bodies, the catalog that accompanies a brand new exhibition in Santa Barbara, at the University of California’s Art, Design & Architecture Museum. Focusing on the contributions of Anna Halprin, Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer to post-modern dance, Radical Bodies argues, among other things, that the experience of being Jewish in postwar America — displacement and loss on the one hand, the plasticity and adaptability of Jewish values on the other — inspired all three women.

I look forward eagerly to seeing this exhibition when it comes to New York’s Public Library for the Performing Arts later this year and to thinking further about the relationship between Jewishness and dance. In the meantime: On your feet, everyone!

Jan 9 17

Anticipation

I had big plans for winter break, which I was spending at home, in the Big Apple. Thoughts of enjoying the sights on Fifth Avenue, taking in a couple of recently released movies, visiting a number of highly publicized exhibitions and filling my belly at celebrated restaurants danced like sugarplums in my head.

Louvre queue

Louvre queue. Flickr/hurikat

It was not to be. Everywhere I turned, there was someone else ahead of me, or, more to the point, multiple someone elses. The movies I had wanted to see were sold out; the exhibitions I looked forward to relishing were so dense, so crowded, with visitors you couldn’t get close enough to the paintings or the display cases to make out what all the fuss was about and the city’s major thoroughfares, subways and buses were so thronged you could barely move. As for securing a restaurant reservation, never mind.

The surge in population was enough to dent my holiday spirits, rendering me grumpy and out-of- sorts. But then I read Wesley Morris’s marvelous salute to the National Museum of African American History and Culture and with it, his paean to waiting on line and, presto, I had a change of heart: Bring on the crowds!

“Standing around is simultaneously boring and one of the happiest, most poignant things I’ve ever done with monotony,” Morris writes, linking stasis to the power of anticipation. Much of what he describes has to do with the particularities of African-American history, noting that “building waiting into the experience feels right for a place that tells the story of a people who’ve had to wait for everything else.”

You could also apply Morris’s insight about the resonance of anticipation to other, less fraught, circumstances in which that emotion reigns supreme: the start of a new academic term, say, or the release of a new book.

Both await. This term, I’ll be teaching two seminars. One is an undergrad history course that explores the impact of crisis and controversy on American Jewry’s sense of itself. The other, a graduate course called “Multiple Lives,” explores the life-cycle of celebrated Jewish cultural phenomena that range from the dybbuk and the golem to Fiddler on the Roof and the Borscht Belt.

Also in the wings is my brand new book. Titled Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments, it explores the ways in which the ancient biblical text imprinted itself on the modern American imagination. You’ll be hearing more about the book in the weeks preceding its release, which is scheduled for the very first of May.

In the meantime, anticipation is in the air.

Dec 11 16

Term limits

Sometimes, an academic semester seems to drag on and on; at other moments, it zips by in a flash. Happily, Fall 2016 fell into the latter category. It moved at a fast clip, which was somewhat surprising given the intellectual ambitions of my two courses. One was an undergraduate seminar called “Pious Forgeries” that explored a raft of celebrated textual and artifactual fabrications from the ancient Near East on into the United States of the 19th century and then Israel of the 21st; the other was a graduate seminar that took the measure of contemporary Jewish life in all of its bewildering variegatedness. Both trafficked in detail, heaps of it.

Start line, finish line

Flickr/Andrew Hurley

At no point in the semester, though, did I feel that the students had lost their way. On the contrary. Both the undergraduates and the graduate students seemed to relish the complex array of issues that were brought to bear: issues of identity, belonging, improvisation, accountability and faith, the weight of the past. Over the course of the term, they grew bolder, more confident in their ability to parse a text, to keep conversation afloat, to value one another’s ideas.

We ended on a good note, too. In our last class together, the undergraduates were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History where, among other things, we peeked inside a laboratory given over to the study of ancient bones, held in our hands both authentic and fraudulent pieces of ancient statuary and learned what it takes professionally to distinguish one from the another. The vastness of the museum, whose stairwells alone were enough to take one’s breath away, added to the expansiveness of the experience.

Although the graduate students didn’t travel too far afield, they had an opportunity to present their final projects amid the high spirits and good eats of a potluck supper. The display of intellectual camaraderie was heartening and uplifting — and the food wasn’t too shabby, either.

All in all, a good run….But in this instance, as in so many others, term limits do come in handy. ‘Best to end before the intellectual momentum gives out. Besides, a new semester with its own set of challenges awaits.

Nov 27 16

History lesson

In my never-ending quest to make the study of the past vital, energizing and, yes, relevant, I tell my students they’re living through history. Most of the time they nod their heads and smile indulgently, making me feel as if I’m just some old professor talking through her hat.

History

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

A case in point: Just the other day, in my graduate seminar on Contemporary Jewish Life, we were discussing how much has changed over the past decade for LGBTQ Jews and their relationship to the Jewish community. Or rather, I was holding forth. Most of the millennials seated around the table were not convinced. From their perspective, the ‘sea-change’ to which I repeatedly alluded was not far-reaching enough, the pace of integration much too slow. Invoking the past, calling on those in the room to compare 1996, much less 1916, with 2016, went nowhere. History had no claims on them.

That was then. A week or so later, in the wake of the election, my students suddenly understood all too well what I meant what I said they were living through history. Words that had once seemed academic such as ‘turning point,’ ‘watershed’ and ‘sea-change’ now assumed an outsized, and immediate, presence in their lexicon.

Walloped by history-in-the-making, they gave voice to a wide array of emotions: dismay, outrage, fear, confusion. Some of my students were so flattened out, so hollowed, by the results of the election that their voices were stilled.

As the term draws to a close, we continue to reckon with what lies ahead. I have no easy answers. But one thing is certain: the presidential race of 2016 is one history lesson my students are not apt to forget anytime soon.