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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.

Books

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/Risd.edu

Ruth Adler Schnee. Lamplights/Risd.edu

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: thehenryford.org

Ruth Adler Schnee. Country Fair/thehenryford.org

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!

May 5 15

Building blocks

Talk about engaging the senses is thick on the ground in contemporary educational and museological circles, where everyone and her cousin makes a case for enriching the classroom or the gallery with more than meets the eye. All too often, though, it remains just that: talk, talk, talk.

Beth Alpha

Model of Beth Alpha Synagogue (Jezreel Valley, Israel, 6th century). Displaycraft, 1972/YU Museum

But last Thursday evening, within the precincts of Yeshiva University Museum’s gem of an exhibition, “Modeling the Synagogue – From Dura to Touro,” the promise of synthesizing object and text with sound was fully realized. I don’t mean one of those sound cones under which small groups of visitors dutifully huddle, or the counterpoint of a soundtrack that wafts and drifts throughout the exhibit space. I mean honest-to-goodness, full throttled sound: that of the human voice, the cello and the clarinet.

“Modeling the Synagogue” takes the form of a series of beautifully rendered maquettes of synagogues from yesteryear. There’s one that represents Toledo and another Florence; a third depicts a synagogue from Dusseldorf and a fourth, one from Newport, Rhode Island. Much like dollhouses whose appeal rests largely on their miniaturization of detail and space, these models also stimulate the imagination. We peer inside, trying to conjure up what it might have been like to lean against a Moorish-styled column, to have sat upright in a wooden pew, to be surrounded by light.

But our imaginations can go only so far. We take the measure of these wondrous spaces but stop short of inhabiting them — which is where music comes into play. An animating presence, it enables us to connect.

Under the sensitive, deft and playful direction of Elad Kabilio and his ensemble, “MusicTalks,” each synagogue model generated its own musical associations, from a haunting Ladino folk song to a touching rendition of Copeland’s “Simple Gifts.” As we moved from model to model, from one time and place to another, we were accompanied by the cello, the clarinet, and the human voice as well as by a varying set of sounds.

Most of the time we listened raptly, attentively to the performers. But on one occasion, those in the gallery couldn’t help themselves and, unbidden, began to sing along with the professional soloist as she gave voice to the refrain of an age-old Yom Kippur piyut.

I don’t know how the soloist felt about this spontaneous musical eruption, but I’ve never experienced anything quite like it, certainly not within the hallowed, and usually silent, halls of a museum. Touching and affirming, enlivening and inspiring, the sound was as much a marvel as the musicianship, and the history, it brought it to life.

Apr 19 15

Embedded

Stones abound in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, but none bear the weight of history quite like the one known as der shteyn. The stone. Planted in the landscape in 1947, it marked the future home of a monument to the six million Jews who had perished in what came to be known as the Holocaust.

Riverside Park Holocaust Memorial site

Riverside Park Holocaust memorial site/Bosc d’Anjou

Fifteen thousand people, among them city officials, high ranking ambassadors and 100 survivors of Buchenwald and Dachau attended the cornerstone-laying ceremony, as did representatives of the 34 different Jewish groups that constituted the monument’s sponsor, the American Memorial to Six Million Jews of Europe, Inc.

The memorial was never built. These days, the compact spot where it was to have been is encircled by an iron fence. Within its precincts lies a granite plaque, its surface worn by time and the weather, which reads: “This is the site for the American memorial to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Battle April-May 1943 and to the six million Jews of Europe martyred in the cause of human liberty.”

Stalled by both financial and aesthetic challenges, the monument’s fate was sealed by New York’s Art Commission which, when asked in 1964 to rule on the appropriateness of two, admittedly oversized, designs, rejected them both.

Some members thought the proposed monument “might distress children in the park.” Others thought it would set a bad precedent, prompting other groups to insist on planting their own memorials on public grounds. And still others insisted that the city’s parks were no place for mourning. “We feel parks are for relaxation and not for the commemoration of massacres,” declared Arnold Whitridge, president of the Art Commission. And that was that.

Or so you’d think. But that would be to discount the will of the people and the process of cultural improvisation by which a tiny plot of land was transformed into a memorial site all its own. Each year, a hundred or so people — most of them affiliated with the Congress for Jewish Culture, the Jewish Labor Committee, the Workmen’s Circle and the Jewish Labor Committee — come together in Riverside Park to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

This year, I was among them. At first blush, I was struck by the anomalousness of the entire enterprise. Here we were, a clutch of mourners attending to the sadness of Jewish history as dogs scampered by, kids zoomed along on their scooters and neighborhood residents were out and about on a leisurely Sunday stroll.

But as I settled into my plastic seat and took in the Yiddish that filled the air, it felt right: modest, unassuming and true. We didn’t need a towering monument to remind us that, in the words of the Hymn of the Partisans, which we sang with gusto, mir zaynen doh! We are here.

Mar 29 15

Crowd sourcing

Marisa Scheinfeld, Indoor Pool, Grossinger's Catskill Resort and Hotel, 2012

Marisa Scheinfeld, Indoor Pool, Grossinger’s Catskill Resort and Hotel, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Gallery talks are nice. So, too, are lectures and other forms of cultural outreach and engagement. But when it comes to eliciting a response, there’s nothing quite like the Q&A that follows on the heels of a public program about American Jewish culture, especially if its destination is that of the Catskills. Talk about audience participation!

The recipe is simple: Take a group whose members make up what the French call a “certain age,” leaven with memories of that former “kingdom of outdoor happiness,” as Grossinger’s, the eminent Catskills hotel, once put it, and mix it up with contemporary observations about Jewish history and humor, food and frolic — and you’re off and running.

Echoes of the Borscht Belt: The Contemporary Photography of Marisa Scheinfeld” is now on view at Yeshiva University Museum. An evocative and witty meditation on place, on the tussle between History and Mother Nature, the exhibition doesn’t just document what happened to the Catskills when its fortunes ran dry. Here, subject matter and visual artistry collude, compelling the viewer to reckon with absence and loss.

The exhibition, which will be closing on April 12th, after which it’ll be headed for the Yiddish Book Center, was accompanied the other evening by a conversation among Ms. Scheinfeld, Jacob Wisse, the museum’s imaginative director, and myself. Although we didn’t lack for what to say — our conversation encompassed a wide range of topics, from creative land use to Jewish history — it was the audience that made the evening a success.

Some attendees reminisced about their days as a band leader or as a guest at a bungalow colony. Others told a slightly naughty joke. Still others speculated on why the Catskills declined. Nearly everyone had something to say — and said it. At one memorable point in the proceedings, some audience members even started speaking directly to other audience members, bypassing the moderator entirely.

One extremely animated participant had been a former tumler at a Catskills establishment. His job was to get the guests, their bellies filled with food, up and about, exercising, swimming, walking, moving and interacting with one another. He would have had an easy time of it with this crowd.

Mar 15 15

Let’s talk

Over spring break, my students headed south to frolic in the surf while I lit out for the west coast to attend a conference.

Buzz

A museum buzz phrase, ‘in conversation.’ Flickr/Sean MacEntee

Organized by the Council of American Jewish Museums, a.k.a. ‘CAJM,’ the three-day confab attended to the many issues — audience cultivation, career development, technology and more technology — that keep those of us who either work in museums or train others to do so awake in the middle of the night.

I learned a lot: about the limits of technology, the cultivation of fun, the mechanics of the ‘participatory museum’ and the importance of developing a staff that is “undeterred.” (I took a real shine to that one.) But what struck me with particular force was not substance so much as language. No matter the context, certain phrases circulated like mad, giving new meaning to “buzzword.”

‘Thinking holistically’ was one crowd pleaser; another was ‘meaningful.’ A third was ‘mission forward,’ and a fourth, the hands-down winner, was ‘in conversation.’

Everyone and everything was ‘in conversation.’ Museums and their audiences were ‘in conversation.’ Technology and content were ‘in conversation.’ Objects on display were ‘in conversation’ with one another and with the viewer. Supplanting ‘dialogue’ as the word du jour, ‘in conversation’ didn’t just happen along. It’s of its time, a reflection of the increasing value that many of us place on lively, active exchange — the kind of exchange that goes beyond tapping and texting. ‘In conversation,’ it seems to me, highlights the value of community.

My students returned home from their spring break with a tan. I returned home from mine with a new vocabulary.

Mar 1 15

Dining out on nostalgia

Zeitgeist is one of those words that historians like to toss around a lot. When called on by our students to explain, we’re apt to say that it’s a German word that means ‘spirit of the age,’ and that they’ll know one zeitgeist from another when they see it.

Russ & Daughters

Russ & Daughters. Flickr/Jeffrey Bary

We’re smack in the middle of a zeitgeist right now, one in which culinary matters have taken center stage, all the more when leavened by a heavy dose of nostalgia. Everywhere you turn, there’s a feature story, a full-length book, a documentary or a new restaurant that traffics in the foods of yesteryear.

From Sturgeon Queens and Deli Man to Welcome to Kutsher’s, the silver screen, or its digital equivalent, is awash in films that chronicle and celebrate a trio of institutions beloved by a much earlier generation of American Jews: the appetizing store, the deli and the Catskill resort where smoked fishes and smoked meat were had in abundance.

Heartwarming, endearing and often laugh-out-loud funny, these films are heavy on sentiment and light on commentary. We’re not meant to ponder so much as embrace. And eat.

Russ & Daughters Café, in the heart of the Lower East Side, is both a beneficiary of this newfound nostalgia as well as its conveyor. Created by two members of the fourth generation of the 100-year-old-family-run business, it purveys all manner of traditional fare — lox, sable, bagels, bialys, seeded rye bread, halvah — but with a twist. The restaurant’s handsomely produced booklet of available potables — of egg creams, flavored sodas and caraway-infused Bloody Marys — calls it the “old standards and the newly invented.”

Dining at Russ & Daughters Café manages to be simultaneously reverential and sly: a cheeky homage to food, drink and history. Where else would a wooden cutting board be prominently displayed and hung just-so, or an old paper shopping bag be handsomely framed as if it were a fine print? Judging from the size of the crowds, the formula is a winning one. That the food is really, really good helps, too.

A group effort, making sense of culinary nostalgia calls on the talents of historians, folklorists, journalists and foodies. A number of them will gather together this coming Thursday, March 5th, at 6:30 p.m. at the Museum of the City of New York to discuss “A Taste of the Old World: Jewish Food and Memory.”

Anyone with a hankering for history and an appetite for conversation should be on hand.