No sooner did I sit down to write this post than my ears were assaulted by the sounds of a jackhammer, which wreaked havoc with my powers of concentration. And then, to add insult to injury, the kid who lives in the apartment right below mine decided it was time right about now to tickle the ivories or, more to the point, to pound them. Oh, woe is me.
The only thing that served to ameliorate my sonic distress was the knowledge that I was not alone. In years gone by, similarly aggrieved New Yorkers took pen to paper and wrote to the municipal authorities, especially to the city’s department of health, to register their dismay at the racket that increasingly characterized urban life.
I picked up this juicy little fact from a fascinating interactive online exhibit called “The Roaring ‘Twenties” which draws on archival matter, maps and Movietone newsreels to document the aural history of New York City during the interwar years. An exercise in what its proponents call “sensory history,” the exhibition challenges us to think historically about sound.
Imagine the possibilities. We could eavesdrop on a synagogue service, whose frustrated clergy repeatedly called on those in the pews to stop talking and to tend to their prayers instead. Or we could take the measure of a sermon: Did its cadences lull its listeners to sleep or prod them into action? We could listen in on the often rancorous meetings of the all-powerful ritual committee as it decided which traditions to follow and which to relinquish. Conversations around the dinner table would also fill our ears, as would the stuff of vaudeville skits and theatrical performances. And what of the way things were taught? What of the sounds of the classroom? Of the workplace?
I’m jazzed by the prospect of integrating the history of sound into my own work and of drawing on the latest digital technologies to make that happen. I’m not sure what I’ll discover but one thing is for sure: I’ll be listening.
Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to get a seat on a very crowded Metro and unceremoniously plopped myself down without paying too much attention to my seatmate. Engrossed in her music, she didn’t pay me much mind, either. But within minutes, both of us were chatting away with one another as if we were long lost buddies or kindred souls -- and in a way, we were.
It turns out that the music my seatmate was playing was not Mozart or Miles Davis but the cantillation for Parshat Shemot. In one hand, she held a xerox of the Hebrew text of the Torah passages she was scheduled to layn (recite) at her Reform synagogue in the coming weeks. Her other hand clutched an iPod, whose musical selection -- marked “God” -- consisted of the trop (the musical notation) that defined how the text was to be sung.
Before long, the exchange of furtive glances characteristic of Metro etiquette gave way to open and animated conversation as we traded notes on the ease or difficulty of the Hebrew, the relative merits of memorization vs. actual knowledge and the degree of preparation with which each of us felt comfortable before publicly reading from the Torah.
Over the years I’ve had lots of memorable conversations on the Metro, but none quite as memorable as this one. In the time it took to travel from my home to my office, so much of what I study, teach and write about, from the relationship between technology and religion to the fluidity -- and portability -- of Jewish identity, came together harmoniously, if unexpectedly.
Given the hordes of people who travel daily on the Metro, the odds of running into my Torah-chanting seatmate are far and few between. But should the occasion present itself, I’ll spare no time in telling her how she brightened my day.
Cue the trumpets: GW has just launched a brand new MA program in Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts. A sibling to the MA program in Jewish Cultural Arts, which made its shining debut just a few short months ago, it will supplement that initiative through its attentiveness to the ways in which the practices and pedagogy of experiential or informal education enhance Jewish culture -- and the other way around.
The wonderful details -- of which there are many -- can be found on the respective websites of each program: Master of Arts in Jewish Cultural Arts and Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts.
What I want to herald here, within the context of the blog, is the broad communal significance of these two undertakings. At a time when the American Jewish community is feeling rather beleaguered and perhaps even unloved and under-appreciated, GW’s decision to throw its weight behind the formation of not one, but two, programs devoted through and through to the critical study, promotion and dissemination of Jewish culture is something to cheer about.
What’s more, that the Jim Joseph Foundation, one of the Jewish community’s most far-sighted and imaginative philanthropies, saw fit to make the MA in Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts possible through its generous support and thoughtful stewardship, should encourage us to cheer more loudly still.
Jewish culture, as growing numbers of people have come to understand, isn't just a tool of engagement or an alternative form of commitment. Yes, it contains all those possibilities. But what truly renders Jewish culture such a vital and generative phenomenon -- let’s call it a life force -- is its status as a gift. From one generation to another and from one iteration to another, Jewish culture gives us license to be creative.
In the wake of the seemingly dire Pew Research Center study, the American Jewish establishment might be at a loss -- not for words, surely, but for ideas -- on how best to respond. Take heart. You needn’t go too far afield in search of reassurance and with it, heartening new forms of collective engagement. All you have to do is to visit Princeton next week, Columbia University in mid-January and the Skirball in Los Angeles a few months later. Pitch a tent in each one of these venues and you’ll encounter a dazzling round of Jewish cultural activities that is sure to lift your spirits.
This coming Friday, Princeton -- yes, you’ve read that correctly -- will play host to a one day symposium, “Fiddler at 50,” that takes the measure of what Alisa Solomon, the author of the must-read, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, calls the most culturally insistent of theatrical productions. Drawing a mix of veteran theater-folk, including the redoubtable Sheldon Harnick, scholars like Solomon as well as the newest generation of Fiddler fans -- Princeton undergrads -- the event promises to enliven our understanding of one of American Jewry’s most enduring cultural milestones.
A few weeks later, Columbia will play host to a free, intensive and immersive one-week long workshop devoted to another one of American Jewry’s cultural touchstones: comics. The handiwork of Tent: Encounters with Jewish Culture, a recent initiative of the Yiddish Book Center, this confab offers a whirlwind of activities designed to send American Jewish twenty-somethings with a keen interest in comics into orbit -- and, when down on earth, in contact with one another.
Meanwhile, those who fancy themselves foodies, foodie-entrepreneurs or just good eaters should flock to Los Angeles in March for Tent: Food LA, yet another free, intensive and immersive one week-long workshop. This one brings together chefs, food writers and those with a hearty appetite for conversation and an abiding interest in Jewish cookery, then & now.
In each instance, as tradition crosses paths with modernity, the results are likely to be as inspiring -- and as surprising -- as fiddlers perched atop the roofs of Broadway.
It’s been years since I last thought about, let alone tasted, a charlotte russe, an exuberent concoction of sponge cake and whipped cream with a ruby cherry perched happily on top. A passing reference in the New York Times the other day brought the treat back into my sights.
As messy to eat as it was high in calories, a charlotte russe was housed in a paper container with a moveable lid at the bottom. It required a fair amount of coordination, perhaps even a keen sense of engineering, to be fully savored. While making your way downward, through the swirls of whipped cream, you’d also push the lid upwards, freeing the sponge cake in the process. Dessert in motion: what fun!
The only time I ever ate a charlotte russe was when my siblings and I visited my grandparents in their Brooklyn apartment on Sunday afternoons. At some point in the proceedings, probably when we became a little too rambunctious, we would be taken to the bakery around the corner and treated to a charlotte russe, whose consumption kept us temporarily busy and blessedly quiet.
A good eater, I loved polishing off an entire charlotte russe all by myself. I loved the pastry’s name even more. I knew enough to know that ‘charlotte russe’ was not an English phrase, but not enough to know whether it was Yiddish or French. No matter. Its foreign-ness beguiled me, hinting at the prospect of a big, big world outside the twin poles of my grandparents’ home and my own.
I’ve now come to understand that by the time I was enthusiastically gobbling down my charlotte russe, the treat was on its last legs, an “endangered series,” a victim of both high labor costs and a changing palate. I’ve also come to understand that it probably wasn’t much good, either.
All the same, I treasure those Sundays with a charlotte russe in hand and a smudge of whipped cream on my nose. An artful fusion of duty and pleasure, of memory and possibility, what better treat could there be?!
Usually I spend Sunday mornings at my desk, trying to come out from under and prepare for the week that lies ahead. But not this Sunday. This one I spent in the company of the congregants of Anshe Chesed of the Upper West Side as well as that of its rabbi, Jeremy Kalmanofsky; John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary; and John Ruskay, executive vice-president of UJA-Federation of New York, as we took the measure of the fabled Manhattan neighborhood we all call home.
What struck me most as I listened to both colleagues and congregants was the degree to which history -- the ebb and flow of change -- was experienced in entirely personal terms. Grand, sweeping theories about urbanism, critical density or migration paled in comparison with those that placed a premium on the individual and her storehouse of memories.
The eagerness with which stories about growing up on the Upper West Side tumbled forth from the audience was particularly noteworthy. Virtually everyone had something to say -- and couldn’t wait to say it -- offering up both an “observation and a comment” on which kosher butcher on West 100th Street was superior to the other, or on the German refugees who staffed the lingerie counter at the Town Shop, or the frequency of après-school muggings in the dark days of the 1970s or the merits of an eight room apartment on West End Avenue.
As I took in and accumulated one detail after another, I was put in mind of S. An-ski, whose fabled “ethnographic” exhibition to the Russian hinterland in the years prior to World War I yielded a treasure trove of information about Jewish life in that part of the world. How, I wondered, did he and his fellow researchers manage to absorb it all and to come away with a clear-eyed perspective without getting lost in the labyrinth of personal memory?
What also came to mind was the celebrated study of East European Jewish life conducted in the late 1940s at Columbia University by Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead and their team of anthropologists. Drawing unstintingly on oral history interviews, on a series of individual exchanges, to get at the shape and texture of a world that was no more, the project was published in 1952 as Life is with People and would go on to influence the creators of Fiddler on the Roof.
After this morning’s exchange, I’m left even more puzzled by the relationship between memory and history. At what point does the warm glow of reminiscence give way to the harsher glare of scholarship and the idiosyncratic submit to the collective?
I returned home this weekend from an intellectually stimulating visit to Vanderbilt University only to learn that my cherished refrigerator, once the very last word in technological sophistication, was on its last legs, its gentle and familiar purr now scratchy and uneven. Its imminent demise threw me for a loop.
What unsettled me wasn’t the prospect of having to throw out scads of food, now gone bad. After all, I was never one of those efficient balebustas who cooked soups and stews and compotes in advance and then froze them. In fact, a long running joke in the family was the disconnect between the ample size of the refrigerator and the slim pickings that typically resided inside.
In our house, the refrigerator functioned more like a billboard than a cooling system, its exterior pockmarked with tickets for and announcements of various cultural events. The disparity between the manifest and latent functions of our refrigerator even prompted a wonderful bon mot from my father who, observing the many pieces of paper which had taken root on the outside of our refrigerator, remarked that we clearly needed a bigger one.
Throwing me into a tizzy was the prospect of having to purchase a new appliance. In the many years since the last (and only) time I had had a conversation about what kind of refrigerator to call my own, the universe of options expanded exponentially. You now need a scorecard to sort out the range of possibilities, which include refrigerators with French doors and refrigerators with side-by-side doors; refrigerators that dispense ice and even refrigerators that keep Shabbat. When programmed in “Sabbath mode,” the doors of this uniquely sensitive appliance can be opened "without concern of directly turning on or off any lights, digital readouts, solenoids, fans, valves, compressors, icons, tones or alarms."
Daunted and nearly defeated, I’m put in mind of the difficulties early generations of consumers no doubt faced when it came to purchasing an icebox or their very first Frigidaire. In a strange concatenation of events, one that blurs the line between the professional and the private, I was just about to begin work on a guest lecture about the immigrant kitchen and the many challenges -- both technological and cultural -- its inhabitants faced, when my longstanding and faithful refrigerator gave up the ghost.
The lecture, I’m afraid, will have to keep. A trip to P.C. Richards awaits.
“There’s more?!” exclaimed a colleague rather incredulously upon learning that I was going to be out of the office for the third time in as many weeks because of the chagim, the Jewish holidays.
She didn’t know the half of it.
Though they make a hash of my schedule and mincemeat of my workload, the chagim serve as a much welcome respite -- a cocoon -- from the demands of the workaday world. They also serve as a marvelous opportunity for people-watching and observing the human condition.
Yes, I know the holidays are supposed to be about the pursuit of higher, loftier goals, from addressing one’s shortcomings to communing with a higher authority. And they are. But now and then, a determinedly human detail -- an incongruity -- surfaces, which adds considerably to the occasion.
Here are a few moments that caught my eye and struck my fancy:
*While at services on Yom Kippur, I espied a pair of shorts peeking out from under the folds of a kittel, the long white shroud that many observant folk -- men, mostly -- wear to remind them that their fate hangs in the balance. It is also customary to wear a suit, or, at the very least, a white shirt and a good pair of long pants, underneath one’s kittel as yet another reminder of the solemnity of the day.
By privileging comfort at the expense of formality, the shorts exemplified what the anthropologist Mary Douglas called “matter out of place.” There was something funny about them, too. The sight of them brought me up, well, short, and made me laugh aloud, much to the consternation of my fellow worshippers who were assiduously attending to their prayers.
*On the first day of Succoth, the seats of the synagogue I attended were filled not just with worshippers but with plastic shopping bags from a local food emporium, prompting me to wonder whether en route to synagogue, people had first stopped off at the market. You might easily think so. It turns out, though, that the sturdy plastic shopping bags were a convenient and handy way to transport and safely contain the etrog and lulav used in the course of the Succoth service.
*Another incongruity. A synagogue in my neighborhood that is usually chock-a-block with black-hatted, extremely Orthodox male worshippers -- a congregation commonly known, in Yiddish, as a shtiebl -- was closed for the holidays. On the face of it, this made absolutely no sense: How could an orthodox synagogue, punctilious in its ritual practice, be closed for Succoth, one of the major festivals of the Jewish calendar?
On further reflection, though, everything fell into place. That the congregation temporarily closed its doors was not a matter of ritual declension as much as it was a matter of heightened religiosity: the need of a succah. Given the difficulties inherent in observing this ritual commandment in an urban setting, the majority of the congregation’s members celebrated the holiday where access to a succah was assured: in Israel or, closer to home, in Monsey, Lakewood, Lawrence, or Boro Park.
Given their diminished ranks, and with it, the looming possibility that those few who remained in the city would not be able to constitute a minyan, a quorum for prayer, the shtiebl did the sensible thing and went dark.
In each and every instance, you have to marvel at the human touch.
It so happened this year that Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, coincided with New York’s Fashion Week, prompting some eagle-eyed observers to trumpet the possibility of a showdown between the “shofar and the shows,” a clash between the “Goddess of Fashion” and the God of the patriarchs and matriarchs.
That didn’t happen, of course. For the most part, those participants who were directly affected by the calendrical conflict made their peace with it. Some stayed away from the runway, others adjusted their schedules and still others clucked their tongues in dismay.
What no one did, near as I can tell, was launch a public protest. What a missed opportunity! Way back in May, when Fashion Week’s schedule was first announced, its sponsors issued the following, rather tepid, statement:
The CFDA greatly respects and understands the importance of this holiday but, given the international calendar of European shows directly after New York, we do not have the option to shift the dates later. We realize that the observance of the holiday will impact some in their ability to attend or present shows -- but we are asking that everyone please work with us to make this situation work as best as possible.
Here’s a situation in which globalization trumps both localism and history -- and no one says ‘boo.’ Once upon a time, the garment industry and with it, the triumph of American ready-to-wear was not only vital to the economic well-being of the Empire City, it was also an industry peopled by Jewish manufacturers, factors, cutters, button-hole makers and union leaders, an industry as sensitive to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar as it was to the vagaries of fashion.
Revolutionizing the way the nation dressed, the garment industry proudly boasted of having transformed the American woman into the “best-dressed average woman in the world,” and her menfolk into men about town. Immigrants were particularly attentive to the magic of ready-to-wear: “Cinderella clothes,” one Jewish immigrant writer called them.
Consigned to the dustbin of history, along with the corsets, stockings, feathers and furbelows of yesteryear, these kinds of sentiments seem to have no place in a world where globalization now rules the roost and age-old religious traditions can be dismissed out of hand as if they were merely an inconvenience or, worse still, just one more commodity.
The Jewish New Year is right around the corner, but with the advent of a new semester and its attendant responsibilities, I haven’t been able to give the holiday the attention it deserves, especially when it comes to figuring out what I’m going to serve, to whom, and when.
Little wonder, then, that I can’t help giving more than a passing glance at the list of foodstuffs ready for purchase and a quick turn in the microwave which Zabar’s, that fabled Manhattan food emporium, has made available for “Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur 2013.”
In addition to dutifully notifying would-be consumers when these two Jewish holidays take place, a function once filled by the local kosher butcher who distributed a Jewish calendar along with the brisket to his customers, Zabar’s offers a wide range of provisions. They run the gamut from “Great Beginnings” to “Main Courses,” and from “Veggies and Sides” to an “Apples & Honey Gift Crate.” There’s the requisite chopped liver, of course, as well as two kinds of gefilte fish. Stuffed cabbage, brisket, and a roast turkey round out the main bill of fare; the latter is even accompanied by a gentle, grandmotherly warning: “Do not overheat.”
Vegetables are also widely available but, with the exception of mashed potatoes and that old, Frenchified standby, string beans almondine, they strike a decidedly contemporary note: Asparagus with sun dried tomatoes, anyone? Braised brussel sprouts?!
So far, so good, especially if you eat your vegetables. But then, throwing caution to the wind -- or something -- the Zabar’s Holiday Dinner Menu ups the ante, leaving no Jewish culinary cliché unturned. It encompasses virtually every item that ever graced the family table of yesteryear: bagels, cream cheese, blintzes, smoked salmon, whitefish, belly lox, and chopped herring salad. All this and brisket, too? On the same table?
It took me a moment or two to adjust my sights, much less my stomach, before it occurred to me that the smoked fish and dairy delights were intended for the Yom Kippur break fast, and not for Rosh Hashanah. Even so, their collective appearance under the rubric of a Jewish holiday dinner strikes me as a bit odd, even misplaced.
It isn’t just that the Zabar’s list of Jewish gastronomic favorites dissolves the traditional boundaries between milk and meat products. Huddling together on a menu designed for Rosh Hashanah and (post)Yom Kippur, they also seem, well, unmoored from their traditional context. Once a regular feature of the American Jewish diet, these items are meant these days to be consumed only now and then. Eating Jewish food has become an occasion rather than the staff of life.