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Sep 7 15


As Rosh Hashanah approaches, one of the things that strikes me is how each generation of Jews, drawing on tradition as well as on the latest technology and the most current protocol, has developed its own way of wishing one another well for the new year. Here, as with other elements of Jewish life and culture, constancy and novelty go hand in hand.

Rosh Hashanah card from the Rosenthall collection

Rosh Hashanah card from the Rosenthall collection

These days, cleverly animated digital greetings rule the roost, one more amusing than the next. Your inbox, like mine, is probably full of them.

When I was growing up, my parents and their friends opted for a more restrained form of exchange, one that placed a premium on good paper stock and just a few lines of handsomely embossed text: “Mr. and Mrs. Irving Weissman and family wish you a healthy and a happy New Year.” Emily Post would have approved.

My grandparents, in turn, were likely to avail themselves of a colorful array of Jewish New Year’s cards, the more bedecked and ornamented, the better. Taking their cue from Christmas and Easter holiday cards, which they often repurposed, shana tovas, as they were known, fancied accordion pleats, paper hinges and other movable parts. In the New World, tradition, they seemed to suggest, was not static, but on the go. That so many coreligionists were also on the go, migrating from one part of the globe to another, was surely not lost on those who purchased and posted these greeting cards.

Earlier generations of Jews, after all, made do with a handshake and a verbal greeting. When communities were intact and intimately sized, there was simply no need for anything more elaborate.

No matter their form, or, for that matter, their language, Jewish New Year greetings are to be treasured. A holiday salute as well as a reflection of circumstance, they speak to a shared sense of community.

Shana tova, a zisn yahr, anyada buena, and a happy new year to one and all.

Aug 30 15


No matter how many years you’ve been in school, the start of the fall term is always fraught with tension. Leaving behind the casual pace of summer and its many pleasures for the rigor of the classroom and its multiple challenges is no easy matter.

Flickr/Tatjana Todorovic

To smooth the transition from one environment to the next, GW’s Program in Experiential Education & Jewish Cultural Arts instituted a whirlwind, multiple-day orientation for its incoming as well as its returning graduate students. Mosaic is its name.

This designation was intended to invoke tesserae, bits of colored glass that, when added together, form a whole — a mosaic — or, at the very least, a pattern. At the risk of literalizing things too much, the big idea here was to liken the various components of the Jewish cultural arts to a mosaic, one that the students would help to fashion.

But as is often the case, especially one paved with good intentions, names tend to accrue a different set of meanings than originally intended. When it came to Mosaic, as its participants discovered last week, the literal definition of the word — ‘pertaining to Moses and his laws’ — came to the fore and with full force.

Wherever we went and whatever we did, from meeting with leading Jewish cultural professionals to learning firsthand of the politics of Israeli cuisine and going behind the scenes at DGS Delicatessen, issues of authenticity invariably popped up. As we took the measure of contemporary Jewish life — its context, its food as well as its culture — where mixing things up is de rigueur, you had to wonder where tradition ends and improvisation takes off. Or, to put it another way: “What would Moses say?”

I’m not sure we’ll come up with the right answers, but we’ll be spending much of the next year in their pursuit.

Aug 16 15

Through the looking glass, darkly

Outside, glorious weather beckoned, but more people could be found inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art than in neighboring Central Park, or so it seemed as I craned my neck, stood on tiptoe and otherwise contorted my body so that I might catch a glimpse of the museum’s latest triumph, “China: Through the Looking Glass.”

Roberto Cavalli, evening dress, fall/winter 2005–6/Metropolitan Museum

Roberto Cavalli, evening dress, fall/winter 2005–6/Metropolitan Museum

Spectacular in every which way, the exhibition features 140 costumes, one more enthralling than the next, that reflect the West’s fascination with the East. Even more compelling and visually arresting than the clothes on view were the settings in which they’re positioned — or, more to the point, staged. Through a series of what the exhibition’s curators call “careful juxtapositions,” several Chanel shirtwaist dresses with a calligraphic print were installed in a gallery whose vitrines held panel after panel of ancient Chinese ideograms. A constellation of stunning blue and white print evening gowns took pride of place amidst a display of the well-known blue and white porcelain that could be found in many 18th century American households.

Elsewhere, red lacquered walls, delicately colored wallpaper flecked with chrysanthemums and a heart-stopping forest of luminous white tubes meant to resemble bamboo (at least I think that was the point) were pressed into service, along with video screens in every conceivable size just about everywhere and background music that intruded rather than receded.

Visitors are duly informed that the exhibition is designed to diminish the distance between East and West, between the “cultural and the simulacrum,” and to inspire “dialogue” as well as “conversation.” That may be, but it was hard, extremely hard, to discern an interpretive through-line as you battled lines, squared off against the ubiquitous taking of selfies and, perhaps most disturbingly of all, visited galleries that were so dimly lit you couldn’t read a thing even if you wanted to.

I suppose that’s the point. Museums these days seem to put more of a premium on sensation than on enlightenment. Visitors aren’t so much engaged or challenged or even moved as barraged. I don’t mean to sound like an old fogy — I like special effects as well as the next person — but something’s amiss when, upon exiting, you desperately need a soothing cup of Oolong tea.

Aug 2 15


Every field has its own distinctive protocols, rituals and even language. In mine, words such as ‘interdisciplinarity’ and ‘historicity’ are tossed about with abandon, much to everyone else’s confusion. Household words, they ain’t. These terms and dozens of others just like them are comprehensible only to the cognoscenti.



As I recently discovered, the language of medicine is something else again. When dealing with patients, it draws on familiar words, but endows them with a highly specific, often euphemistic, meaning that not only baffles rather than clarifies, but also undermines one’s confidence.

Here are a couple of examples. One young physician, in an attempt to indicate that she wasn’t unduly concerned with the medical situation at hand, allowed how she was “not impressed.” Meanwhile, her more seasoned colleagues took a different tack — and deployed a different word: They characterized a potentially troublesome medical situation as “concerning.”

That adjective and its cousin, the noun (‘concern’), seems to be the medical word du jour, a substitute for the over-used and tired “issues.” Time and again, I was asked whether I had any “concerns.” Really?!

And this: When nurses get together to discuss a patient’s lot, they don’t gather or confer so much as “huddle.” And, my all-time favorite: an unusually configured body part — a foot, for example, represents a form of “deranged architecture.” Imagine being told that by a physician!

I suppose I shouldn’t fret about this ‘deranged’ use of language just as long as those who wield it practice good and sound medicine. But its widespread use did give me pause — and, now and then, cause for laughing aloud, which, come to think of it, was of therapeutic value.

Jul 12 15

Take note

While some of my colleagues are currently improving their backhand or in pursuit of the perfect bottle of rosé, I’m whiling away my summer hours ransacking my files in search of the elusive footnote. You see, I’ve come to that point in the writing process where I need to account for myself. It’s footnote time!

Cartoon by Dave Carpenter

Cartoon by Dave Carpenter,

Citing chapter and verse — Jenna Weissman Joselit, A Perfect Fit (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001), p. 7 — is easier said than done. You would think that after so many years of writing and publishing, I’d have gotten the hang of it by now, or, at the very least, that I would have learned my lesson and immediately filed away a footnote once I insinuated someone else’s bon mot among my own.

If only. Sacrificing accountability to the all-important “flow,” I kept writing away rather than stopping to take note. Besides, I told myself, everything, from the index cards tidily arrayed in neat, little boxes to the Xeroxes housed in different color folders, was clearly marked and well within reach. When the moment was right, all I had to do was to pluck the appropriate source from its container and the deed was done. No muss, no fuss.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. There’s nothing but muss and fuss as I upend the contents of one folder after another in search of a newspaper article from 1895 that I’m sure — absolutely, positively, unhesitatingly sure — that I Xeroxed or printed out. ‘Turns out I was mistaken. Instead of creating a hard copy, I had actually taken notes on said article, whose contents were now to be found, and fading fast, on an index card, one of several hundred in the black box that looks awfully like the 12 similar black boxes housing the other handwritten notes I had assembled over the many years on which I’ve worked on this project.

Repeat this procedure 20, 30, even 40 times a day and it’s no wonder that at its close, my digs look as if they’ve been hit hard by a tornado and I’m in desperate need of a drink (perhaps a glass of that rosé).

But I soldier on and keep at it, day in and day out, bearing in mind, as Anthony Grafton reminds us in his salute to the footnote, that these little, hard-won nuggets of information are what binds one historian to another and the past to the present.

Jul 1 15

Critical faculties

“Everyone’s a critic,” my mother used to say — and that was well before blogging made it official. She was right. No matter the subject or the limited extent of our expertise, we can’t wait to weigh in and pronounce judgement, invariably leading with our emotions than with our intellects.


Stack of old books. Flickr/Austin Kirk

No one is immune. You’d think professional critics would hew to a different, and far more elevated, set of standards. Two recent examples of book reviews, drawn from the Jewish Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, respectively, put paid to that idea, underscoring the extent to which the book review has become a platform on which to strut your stuff rather than the author’s.

In the first instance, the reviewer spent more time discussing the sources the author allegedly failed to consult than in reckoning with the substance of her argument — some 300 pages worth. Demonstrating his erudition at the expense of the author’s, this reviewer contravened one of the cardinal rules of the trade: engage with the book at hand, not with the one you would have written.

In the second instance, the reviewer appeared to be at sea, unable to discern, let alone grapple effectively with, the manifold contributions of the book under consideration. When not missing the point entirely, he fumbled, concluding his review with reference to the book’s price as well as its laudatory blurbs — to which he took exception. Awfully strange, that. This reviewer violated another cardinal rule of the trade: accepting an assignment for which one is either intellectually or temperamentally ill-suited.

Reviews like these are missed opportunities, writ large. By the time we finish with them, we’ve learned something about the ego, but little else.

Jun 15 15

Fast track

I’ve been to a fair number of academic gatherings in my day: conferences and “un-conferences,” workshops, symposia and seminars. By now, I know pretty much what to expect. Sometimes, the proceedings take the form of panel discussions; at other times, frontal lectures are de rigueur and, of course, there’s the inevitable keynote presentation. Sure, you’re bound to pick up a new idea along the way or come face to face with a colleague whose work you know only via the printed page or online discussion groups. But that’s about as exciting as it gets. For the most part, academic gatherings tend to be more dutiful than fun.

Library of Congress

Library of Congress at night. Early 1900s postcard. Flickr/StreetsofWashington

Last week’s 15th anniversary celebration of the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center — ScholarFest LOC, it was called — was entirely different. It offered its participants, of which I was one, an entirely new form of scholarly exchange: lightning conversation. Much like speed-dating, this entailed a swift-paced give-n-take, a search for common ground, between two people who were not only unacquainted but on markedly different levels of the academic hierarchy.

As you can well imagine, the prospect of being up on a stage chatting away without the benefit (read: safety net) of a lectern, a set of well-prepared remarks and the gift of time had most of us — both senior and junior colleagues alike — in a tizzy. An exercise in spontaneity — and in concision — it called on skills we hadn’t honed in quite some time. No wonder the room was abuzz in anticipation. Much as we reassured ourselves and one another that we were not being graded on how well we performed, we knew deep down that these lightning conversations tested our mettle.

Most of us, I’m happy to say, passed with flying colors. Once we relaxed our shoulders and our perspective, we might even have enjoyed ourselves. Academics, after all, are not only good talkers. As ScholarFest made clear, we’re fast talkers, too.

Jun 1 15

Lifelong learning

I’m often stimulated and provoked, engaged and engrossed. On occasion, I’m even moved. Rarely, though, am I inspired. Usually, it takes a lot to get those juices going, but within minutes of meeting Ruth Adler Schnee last week, inspired, I was.

Ruth Adler Schnee. Lamplights. Credit/

Ruth Adler Schnee. Lamplights/

Now in her 90s, the textile artist and champion of mid-century Modernist design was the highlight of a symposium — in effect, its guest of honor — that was held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in connection with one of its current exhibitions, “Designing Home.” Several of her eye-popping textiles are on display.

What’s so striking about Ruth Adler Schnee isn’t just that she’s a recipient of the 2015 Kresge Eminent Artist award or the subject of “The Radiant Sun,” a vibrant documentary about her long and distinguished career, which took her from Dusseldorf to Detroit, where she married, raised a family, ran a business, and pursued her art. And pursues it, still.

Ruth Adler Schnee. The Country Fair. Credit:

Ruth Adler Schnee. Country Fair/

It’s more a matter of her sensibility. At once girlish and whimsical, witty and knowing, humble yet commanding, she’s as multi-dimensional as her textiles, which incorporate and make use of her distinctive sense of style.

You might think that the dislocations of time, space and history would result in a somber palette or a predilection for rigidly geometrical shapes. But that’s not the case, not by a long shot. Her palette is awash in bright colors and the forms that inhabit her textiles are winsome. You look at them and smile.

It’s been a week since I first met Ruth Adler Schnee and I’m still smiling. Now, that’s what I call inspiration.

May 22 15

Late night

When I was in college, pulling an all-nighter was a real thrill. Burning the midnight oil, I thought, was an exercise in devotion, a testament to the fires of my imagination. I now know better. I’d much rather be sleeping at 3 in the morning than shaping and reshaping my sentences, drowning my frustrations in mug after mug of black tea.

Mt. Sinai/Providence Lith. Co.

Mt. Sinai/Providence Lith. Co.

There’s one night of the year, though, when I still relish the prospect of staying up until the wee hours of the morn and tumbling, bleary-eyed, into bed when everyone else is heading to work, and that’s Erev Shavuoth, or, as it’s increasingly known, Tikkun Leil Shavuoth.

An age-old custom that has taken hold of the contemporary Jewish imagination, the Tikkun has arguably become one of the fastest-growing and most popular moments on the Jewish calendar. Even the most optimistic of observers would never, ever have predicted that the practice of staying up all night to study Torah would flourish in modern-day America — and flourish among all segments of the Jewish population, not just among its most traditional and observant members.

Dressed in suits or in t-shirts, sporting yarmulkes or some other form of headgear, people gather together in droves. Some show up just for the cheesecake, others for the company and still others for the madcap fun of it all. Many of the attendees are drawn by the programming which tends to be as diverse and varied as they are. At the 14th Street Y Into the Night, you can study gemara, familiarize yourself with the meaning of shmita, stretch your limbs and listen to Bach. Further uptown, at the JCC of Manhattan Shavuot, offerings range from Israeli dance and cooking classes to an intensive encounter with Megillat Ruth.

However you explain it — as an exercise in pluralism, an expression of postdenominationalism, a version of DIY Judaism, a form of neo-Hasidism, an instance of Jewish renewal — by whatever name, the joint is jumping come 10 p.m. on Erev Shavouth and remains in motion until sunrise.

Be there. It’s probably as close as any of us will ever get to Mount Sinai.

May 10 15

Ma nishma?

Summer camp has inspired a spate of feature films, a series of exhibitions and any number of spoofs. Most recently, it gave rise to a “convening” at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. Twenty specialists in anthropology, education, history, linguistics, religious studies, and sociology, pooling their resources, came together to explore the role of Hebrew at Jewish summer camp. I was among them.

Camp Massad

Camp Massad

In this day and age where experiential education rules the roost, you might think we spent much of our time outdoors, in keeping with our subject matter. We didn’t. Apart from an “ice-breaker” exercise, which took place outside, on a small sliver of grass, we held forth while sitting around a table.

And held forth we did, straining to keep our nostalgia for camp from overwhelming our critical insights. Many of us, it turned out, had a direct and personal connection to the issue at hand, having attended a summer camp where Hebrew, in one form or another, was the language of song or prayer, signage, theatrics, or daily life.

The tension between the personal and the professional added a lot to the proceedings, infusing our conversation about the “linguistic landscape,” IRBs and “translatability” with a spiritedness and a lightness that is often absent at academic gatherings.

I don’t mean to suggest that all was fun and games. We took our charge to explore the role of Hebrew at summer camp with high seriousness, so much so that at times the dueling perspectives of history and sociology came awfully close to resembling color war.

But not for long. Much like summer camp, things ended well, each of us vowing to keep in touch until we met again. L’hitraot!