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Feb 23 15

The big chill

Everyone’s talking about the weather. Our daily speech is studded with allusions to snow, wind chill, clipper effects and vortexes. Wreaking havoc with our plans, much less our wardrobes, meteorology has taken hold of our lives.

The Elements of Style

The Elements of Style/Wikipedia

I can’t wait for the day when I no longer have to pull on my warm clunky boots. Or is it my warm, clunky boots? Having just read “Holy Writ,” Mary Norris’ wry and vivid piece in The New Yorker about her experiences as a copyeditor, I’m no longer sure about my commas. Norris’s cautionary tale about when to deploy them and when not has got my knickers — okay, my long johns — in a twist.

Norris acknowledges that grammar can be intimidating, but then, throwing caution to the wind, she gleefully intimidates the rest of us with her knowing references to coordinate adjectives, serial commas, Oxford commas, and other tools of the trade.

For those who don’t spend the better part of their days fretting about such matters, “Holy Writ” makes for great reading. It provides a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most critical, but little known and even less understood, aspects of the writerly life.

For those who, like me, do spend the better part of our days fretting about commas and clauses, “Holy Writ” has had a chilling effect. It was all I could do to write this post. I’m frozen in more ways than one.

Feb 9 15

Chance encounters

When you’re an historian conducting research, you just never know what you’re going to discover. Archival finding aids and previously published citations guide your hand and point you in the right direction, but now and again you happen upon something completely unexpected — a juicy bit of gossip, a clever turn of phrase, a little known event — that deepens your understanding of the past and lifts your spirits. Serendipity can often be the historian’s best friend.

Archives

Archives. Flickr/Marino González

But these days, with the wholesale digitization of newspapers and archival matter, chance encounters occur less and less frequently. You type in a keyword and the relevant text or passage appears. How wondrous! How efficient! Yet, something gets lost along the way: your eye zeroes in rather than roams freely. This is precisely why I encourage my students to consult the original text rather than rely on an electronic version.

I practice what I preach. Earlier this week, while at the New York Public Library, I was gingerly making my way through the fragile pages of the Occident and Jewish Advocate of 1860 in search of information about a specific event when, lo and behold, I stumbled across a deliciously nasty comment penned by the journal’s editor, Isaac Leeser, about his bête noire, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati.

I knew the two men didn’t get on, but this was something else again — a whopper of a putdown, and in public, no less. Wrote Leeser: “I.M.W. may continue, for all I care, to be the greatest man living in his own estimation, but this much I will maintain, that if I need any information I shall never go to Cincinnati to obtain it from the man who has caused more disturbance and heart-burning than any other Hebrew within the limits between the Atlantic and Pacific.”

This particular passage had absolutely nothing to do with my project, but it made my day all the same, bringing mid-19th century mudslinging to life. The passage in question makes my point, too, for the odds of it appearing in a digital database are rather slender. Under what rubric or keyword would it show up? Animus? Bruised feelings? Competition? Heartburn?

Jan 25 15

Hydrate!

To keep healthy and limber, we’ve been encouraged to drink lots of water. But what do you do if you don’t enjoy the taste of H2O, especially when it’s been heavily treated with fluoride and who knows what else, leaving a chemical residue on your tongue?

Brooklyn Seltzer

Brooklyn Seltzer. Flickr/Julie

Our solution: We drink seltzer. And not just any seltzer, but the old-fashioned, resolutely fizzy kind which comes in hard-to-lift glass bottles and is delivered to our door in a wooden crate by Brooklyn Seltzer Boys.

Much of the pleasure we derive from this potable is, admittedly, gastronomic. With its sturdy bubbles and clean finish, the seltzer produced by Brooklyn Seltzer Boys tastes real good. And it’s fun to drink, too. Pressing the siphon, waiting for the release of noise and liquid, is so much more absorbing than unscrewing the cap of a bottle.

Then again, in a household where the study of history and of material culture rules the roost, the joy we take from our daily doses of seltzer has as much to do with its physicality as its tastiness. Not only do the bottles themselves come in a range of colors, from clear and frosty white to marine blue and forest green, but, so, too, does their lettering. It runs the gamut from stark black to feisty red.

More fascinating still are the names of the companies that once manufactured the stuff. Their ranks include High Rock Seltzer, American Beverage Co., Celia’s Bottling Company, S.G. Seltzer (the initials stood for Sam Ginsburg), and, this week’s favorite, Dov Shraga.

Largely an East Coast phenomenon, seltzer, the “poor man’s champagne,” was produced all over the United States, even as far away as Wyoming. Its manufacturers went to some lengths to tout the beverage’s virtues. Some spoke of it as “sparkling,” others as “carbonated,” and still others of it being both “siphonated” and “ozonized.”

One way or another, seltzer was — and continues to be — good for you. Drink up!

Jan 19 15

Oddments

This week’s New York Times Magazine featured a fascinating article by Neal Gabler, “Call It What It Is,” that details the process by which products make a name for themselves. Literally. I learned that it takes a facility for language, a keen ear for sound and a lively imagination to come up with the likes of Viagra (a combination of “vigorous” and “Niagara”) and Accenture (a combination of “accent” and “future.”) English majors, take note!

Dictionary

Dictionary. Flickr/noricum

Much as I enjoy reading about the coinage of new words, I’m drawn more to antiquated, dated turns of phrase and, most especially, to words that have dropped from sight and out of current usage. The equivalent of a secret language, their discovery is one of the perks of my trade. Had I not been an historian, making my way through the sermonic literature of the interwar years, I would never have known the pleasure of the word “desuetude,” a particular favorite of the American rabbinate of that era. And now, one of mine.

The same goes for “oddment.” I had never, ever, come across this word until it appeared, a couple of years ago, in a review of one of my books. From the context, I couldn’t immediately make out whether it was used complimentarily or critically, which prompted me to make a bee-line for the dictionary.

“Odd-ment: (noun) 1. An old article, bit, remnant or the like. 2. An article belonging to a broken or an incomplete set.”

Ouch.

Still, I fancy the word. Or, more to the point, I fancy the impetus behind it, which is that of a curiosity, or what we today, much less elegantly, might term an “outlier.” Better yet, let’s think of it as a tidbit.

You can find lots of oddments in obituaries. Just the other day, an obituary for Samuel Goldwyn Jr., the producer of such celebrated films as The Madness of King George and Mississippi Masala, mentioned that, as a young boy learning the rewards of financial independence, he delivered newspapers. But his was no ordinary paper route. As befitting his status as the scion of a movie mogul, young Goldwyn didn’t make his way by foot or on a bike. He dispensed his duties while travelling in a chauffeured car.

Now that’s what I call an oddment!

Dec 29 14

Change agents

Like most of us, I look forward to 2015 with keen anticipation: So many museums to visit, performances to see, and articles to read. Strike that last bit; it’s just not true. Between the recent implosion at The New Republic and the spate of early retirements and firings at The New York Times, I’m not sure I’ll have much to read, come 2015.

New York Times

New York Times. Flickr/Kike Muñoz Beltrán

For years, I enjoyed making my way through TNR’s fabled “back of the book,” delighting in what its discerning contributors had to say about the latest title or exhibition or film. The magazine made me a culturally literate and engaged citizen of the world — and a better professor, too. Time and again, I drew on its insights when preparing for a lecture or in casual conversation with colleagues and students.

The Times also left a big imprint on me. Between Joseph Berger’s wise and sensitively drawn human interest stories, Edward Rothstein’s incisive museological critiques, and Christopher Gray’s gimlet-eyed “Streetscapes,” I learned how to write and how to reckon with human foibles, big ideas and the built environment.

Their collective departure from the Times leaves me bereft. Who will I turn to for commentary on the variegated New York Jewish community? Bring to campus to reflect on the most recent developments within the museum world? Inspire me to take to the streets in search of an arresting architectural detail?

I’ll make do, of course, but one thing is certain. I’ll be none the wiser in 2015.

Dec 16 14

The printed word

As the semester draws to a close, I’m prompted to reflect on some of its highlights, from a lively cooking class with food writer Leah Koenig to an affecting performance, at the Arena Stage, of Fiddler on the Roof.

 Middle East Librarians Association GW

Middle East Librarians Association display/GW

Though profoundly satisfying, both experiences were trumped by an unexpectedly moving encounter in the library: The Kiev Collection’s display of “Hebrew Printing in the Arab and Islamic World.” Assembled by its knowledgeable and sage curator, Brad Sabin Hill, and timed to coincide with the annual meeting of the Middle East Librarians Association, this assortment of 30-odd books touched me to my very core.

I’m not sure why. Surely, it wasn’t their subject matter, which ranged from grammatical commentaries on the Bible to a liturgy for mourners. Nor was it a matter of their visual properties, for virtually all of the books on display bore little by way of illustration. And it certainly wasn’t the simple, honest and direct manner in which they were exhibited, row upon row on a wood table. No bells and whistles, no pyrotechnics, dazzled, or distracted, the eye.

But dazzled I was, all the same. Perhaps it had to do with their geographical origins, which spanned Istanbul and Beirut, Tunis and Salonika, Alexandria and Aden — places which the Jews once called home, but are no more. Then again, maybe it had to do with the ways in which these humble texts managed, somehow, to survive the vicissitudes of Jewish history and to come to rest in Washington, D.C.

Whatever the reason, I left the inviting precincts of the Kiev Collection heartened — and haunted — by the presence of these books and the stories they carry.

Nov 25 14

Crossroads

Last week, I was quite literally on the road, travelling on trains, planes and buses. No matter the destination — New York; D.C.; College Park, Maryland; and Cincinnati, Ohio — the conversation at hand had to do with the future of Judaic Studies. At the risk of sounding like the doomsayers who find their worst fears confirmed by the Pew Center study on contemporary Jewish life, I’ve come away from my wanderings rather concerned about the ongoing vitality of Judaic Studies. The field is currently celebrating, or about to mark, its 40th birthday on many a college campus, amidst dwindling enrollments and exceedingly anxious university administrators who measure success, or viability, solely in terms of metrics.

Thomas Guignard At the crossroads

“At the crossroads.” Flickr/Thomas Guignard

For all its maturity, Judaic Studies is a veritable start-up, especially when compared with other longstanding disciplines in the humanities such as History, English or even Semitics. Along the way, it has experienced more than its fair share of growing pains. Some have to do with the circumstances under which the field is constituted, others with the nature of the academic economy, much less the vagaries of the marketplace, and still others with the vexing matter of its intellectual utility.

University deans decide whether Judaic Studies ought to be administered as a program or as a department, a seemingly insignificant semantic decision whose implications run deep; donors, in turn, provide the financial incentive to set things in motion. The faculty, meanwhile, answers not only to these two constituencies, but to its colleagues as well, many of whom, even forty years on, are still not persuaded that Judaic Studies is a legitimate academic enterprise, with its own distinctive methodologies, body of practices and conceptual concerns.

There’s not too much we can do about university administrators, donors or the economy. But, as Judaic Studies approaches its next forty years, perhaps we could do something about our presence on the academic landscape. Much as I’d prefer to think otherwise, we who traffic in Judaic Studies inhabit an intellectual ghetto, whose gates we zealously monitor. Privileging the mastery of traditional Jewish texts at the expense of other kinds of sources and clinging tightly, stubbornly, to a static and internal hierarchy of interpretive values, we have not always been the most welcoming of neighbors.

Before the next significant birthday rolls around, here’s hoping we can do better.

Nov 9 14

‘Tis the season

Now that the Jewish holidays have come and gone, it’s time to start thinking about what lies ahead. In the event that graduate school is in your future — or that of someone you know — I hope you might give some thought to enrolling in an exciting new program at GW: the M.A. in Jewish Cultural Arts.

Master of Arts in Jewish Cultural Arts


You’ll forgive me for sounding like a proud parent, or, worse still, like a shameless self-promoter, when I sing the praises of this enterprise, now in its second year. It’s the real deal. Taking advantage of everything that D.C. has to offer — smart and savvy people, gratifying internships and culture, culture, culture just about everywhere you turn — the M.A. in Jewish Cultural Arts makes learning both fun and meaningful. Better yet, the program sees to it that its students shine.

Who can ask for anything more?

Send us your sons and daughters, your grandchildren, your nieces and nephews as well as your neighbor’s kids.

Great opportunities await!

Oct 18 14

Mystic chords

The other evening, I attended a concert that had as much to do with movement as with listening. I found it hard to stay in my seat — and I was hardly the only one. The performance featured Zach Fredman and the Epichorus Big Band as well as Dan Nadel and Musicians, two groups whose musical intelligence enlivens and invigorates the contemporary Jewish music scene.

Oud

Oud. Flickr/Juan Eduardo Sara Zaror

Drawing on a mix of spoken and musical sounds, on western instruments like the violin and on eastern ones like the oud and the riq; on improvisation and form, on flamenco and piyut (yes, you read that correctly); on contemporary renderings of age-old melodies, the two groups offered a musical experience that was nothing if not layered: at once an exercise in cultural reclamation and re-interpretation.

The setting in which the concert took place was itself a study in layering. I can’t imagine a more perfect venue in which to receive and absorb this music that the sanctuary of B’nai Jeshurun, a riot of color and decorative motif that ought not to hang together, but which does in ways that make our current fondness for minimalism look utterly misplaced. The sanctuary, which dates to the 1920s, reflects an Art Deco vision of Moorish architecture — smack in the middle of Manhattan.

Recently, the New York Times discussed the difficulties faced by the contemporary orchestra, from a diminishing base of subscribers to latter-day listening practices, which are somewhat at odds with the protocols of the traditional concert hall.

Given the immersive, engaging musical experience I enjoyed the other evening, I can’t help wondering whether that kind of concert might be just the ticket.

Oct 1 14

The voice

During the 10-day period that spans Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, it’s customary to attend to your soul, contemplate your shortcomings, and resolve to do better. Some of the rabbis I know call this “spiritual work.”

Yentl Theater J

Yentl. Source: Theater J

Mine took the form of going to the theater with a number of my graduate students in tow. Appropriately enough, the play we went to see was Theater J’s absorbing new production of Yentl.

This version of the I.B. Singer short story Yentl, der yeshive-bokher, places sexual ambiguity, or “spiritual androgyny,” as the title character puts it right at the getgo, at its core. Earlier versions, especially the 1980s Barbra Streisand vehicle, placed a premium on feminism, on yearnings that had more to do with the intellect than the body.

What struck me as I compared the merits of both productions wasn’t so much the realization that each generation fashions a Yentl that speaks most directly to its singular set of concerns. What struck me most forcefully was the power of the voice or, more to the point, the power of multiple voices, joined together in song and conversation.

From listening to the performers sing and act to engaging in lively discussion about the play with my students the very next morning, I came away heartened, even energized, by the possibilities that lie in store for those fortunate enough to use our voices in song, speech and prayer.