Marco Uccellini, Giacobo Basevi Cervetto and M. Mani are by no means household names, but if Pro Musica Hebraica had its way, they would be. Jewish musicians and composers who came of age in 17th and 18th century Europe, they contributed mightily to the repertoire of Baroque music, extending its range, enlarging its sound and holding out the possibility of finding common ground through melody, rhythm and song.Popular and esteemed in their time, their compositions — cantatas, oratorios and sonatas — fell prey first to the vagaries of changing musical taste and then to the degradations of the Nazis, who confiscated the contents of the Amsterdam community’s Etz-Haim Library, which housed them.
Although history has not been kind to Messrs. Mani, Uccellini and Cerveto and their respective musical contributions, two contemporary organizations, Pro Musica Hebraica and the Apollo Ensemble, have had great success of late in redressing the situation. Working together, they have sought, as Robyn Krauthammer, the chief executive officer of Pro Musica Hebraica, put it so eloquently, to “free this music from time.”
Last Monday night, May 13th, the Apollo Ensemble performed at the Kennedy Center, bringing this member of the audience to tears more than once. The group’s bravura musicianship had something to do with my heightened emotional state, as did the beauty of the music. Digital projections of the musical compositions, some bearing the cameo-like stamp of the Etz-Hayim Library, also tugged at my heart-strings, while the incisive program notes composed by Professor James Loeffler of the University of Virginia made me want to learn more.
But what really struck me — and hard — was the sense that this particular concert was itself a composition of layers, whose structure was built on the multiple strands that make up the Jewish experience: Creative energy, loss, rediscovery, preservation, translation, reinterpretation and the prospect of renewal.
By now, I don’t suppose there are many people in the world who would liken the groves of academe to an earthly paradise. Too much has been written of late about tensions between faculty and university administrators, student ennui and diminishing resources to hold up the academic enterprise as a paragon of civility.The steady advance of hybrid courses and of MOOCs has compounded matters even more. From coast to coast, discussions about their integration into the curriculum have become increasingly heated, throwing just about everyone -– their advocates, their detractors and those in the middle — into a tizzy. You need only pick up an issue — any issue — of The Chronicle of Higher Education or, for that matter, The New York Times, to see the extent to which tempers have frayed.
Fear of change and the prospect of an uncertain future fuel much of this. But so, too, does the very nature of academic life where, all too often, petty politics rules the roost and decidedly uncollegial behavior is the coin of the realm.
When it comes to accounting for the distinctive culture that is academe, theories abound. Some draw on social psychology, others on economics and still others on history. They clarify matters up to a point.
What’s most helpful, I think, is to summon up thoughts of Alice in Wonderland. Her trip down the rabbit hole has nothing on academic life, whose dizzying, disorienting twists and turns make Alice’s experiences look like a walk in the park.
I try to follow and keep abreast of a lot of things: the news, for starters, as well as fashion and film and arts and culture. But I give baseball and basketball, much less soccer, a pass. You will rarely, if ever, catch me reading the sports section of the New York Times.This week, though, I found myself riveted by an article about a contemporary British 10th level soccer team, the London Maccabi Lions, which appeared in Sunday’s paper. Their jerseys festooned with a Star of David, all of the players, it turns out, are Jewish. It’s a team requirement.
Jewish sports organizations are nothing new, of course. Prewar Poland, for instance, abounded in Jewish gymnastic groups and clubs that sported the name Maccabee in homage to the physical bravura of the ancient Hasmoneans. One branch of the Maccabees took to skiing, another to motorcycle racing, while the young men of Bialystok, resplendent and confident in white shorts and boldly striped jerseys, struck an insouciant pose in a 1926 photograph that can be found in the illustrated book, Image Before My Eyes.
Closer to home, American Jewish social settlement houses, summer camps and other social reform organizations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries also made much of sport. Through an organized program of physical activity, they sought to normalize — and toughen — the male Jewish body, widely thought to be constitutionally weak and inferior.
What makes the London Lions newsworthy, then, is not so much its composition or its agenda so much as its relationship to the body politic. Some wonder whether an all-Jewish soccer team fosters community among its players and fans or weakens the commonweal.
At a time of increasing fragmentation, the exclusive ethnic franchise of the London Lions raises legitimate questions about whether this is a goal worth pursuing. It’s a tough call, but I’d root for the team. It has history on its side.
Within our increasingly futurist orientation, there often seems to be little room for the past. But if this week’s events are any indication, yesteryear casts a very long shadow on contemporary life. Between the flap regarding the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, you’d be hard put to avoid history’s long reach.While visiting Amsterdam, Justin Bieber, like so many tourists before him, made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Anne Frank House. At the conclusion of his visit, the teen idol innocently expressed the hope that had Anne Frank survived, she would have been a big fan: a “belieber.” In no time at all, his remarks generated quite the hullabaloo, placing the story of Anne Frank and her family once again within our sights.
Several days later, the debut of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews made front page news. In the works for several years now, the museum not only chronicles the Polish Jewish experience but also seeks a form of closure. “You can’t put the pieces back together again, but you can build bridges,” explained Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who’s responsible for the core exhibition.
For several years, the Polish photographer traveled throughout Poland with an eye towards finding and photographing Jewish tombstones (matzevot) that had been incorporated into the landscape as building blocks and cobblestones. His work gives a new, and entirely sinister, meaning to the practice of recycling.
In one photograph, a tombstone, turned on its side, is “repurposed” as the cornerstone of a storehouse of farm equipment. In another, fragments of tombstones are patched together, helter-skelter, as the exterior wall of a cowshed. In a third photograph, a Hebrew name or phrase peeks out amid the smooth cobblestones of a neat and tidy town square.
Baksik’s work packs quite a wallop. It unsettles. At first glance, you’re not quite sure what you’re meant to see: An urban street scene, perhaps? A pastoral setting? In the absence of people, these images don’t give you too many helpful hints. But the longer you look at them, the more details accrue, until you realize that what you’re seeing are pieces of the Jewish past. Quite literally.
It’s the fragmentary, elusive nature of things that makes Baksik’s photography so compelling. A visual metaphor for history’s relationship to the present, it reveals an unvarnished reality in which the past makes itself felt in bits and pieces.
Much of what we read about the modern university — the endless faculty squabbles, the pitfalls of digital education, bored undergrads — leave most of us with a giant headache.But were we to look beyond the headlines and more squarely at the day to day business of the university, a decidedly more heartening portrait might emerge, one in which college education complicates and enlarges our sense of the world.
A case in point is the Frieda Kobernick Fleischman Lecture in Judaic Studies, which is presented annually by GW’s Program in Judaic Studies. A high point of the program’s calendar, this lecture brings to campus celebrated scholars of the Jewish experience to reflect on one or another of its varied manifestations.
This year’s Fleischman Lecture, which is scheduled to take place on Monday evening, April 15th, at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., features Professor Pierre Birnbaum, one of France’s leading political sociologists and historians. His talk, Sur la table: Food, Identity and the Jews in Modern France, casts a searching eye on the often surprising ways in which gastronomy has as much to do with citizenship as it does with the palate.
Making its way through a dazzling array of sources — menus, official pronouncements, news clips, Jewish communal records, even song — Professor Birnbaum’s presentation promises to enrich our understanding of what it means to be a citizen and, in the process, to reveal the university at its very best.
One of the most exciting — certainly among the most crowded — of exhibitions in New York at the moment is the Met’s “Impressionism, Fashion, & Modernity.” And for good reason. Training its sights on the triangulated relationship among these three mighty cultural forces of the late 19th century, the exhibition opens our eyes to what makes us truly modern: our clothes.As visitors in casual attire take in the somber black suits, oversized cashmere shawls, dainty shoes, upstanding hats, ever-so-tight bodices and enormous bustles that inhabit this exhibition both visually and artifactually, they’re hard pressed at first to associate them with modernity. Exercises in modulation and constraint, these articles of dress seen anything but modern.
Thanks, though, to the smart and allusive writing on the wall and to the canny juxtapositions between painting and object, which echo and reverberate, we come away with an entirely fresh perspective on late 19th century dress and, more broadly still, on why clothing matters as much as it does. As Anatole France put it, “If I were permitted to choose amidst the jumble of books that will be published a hundred years after my death, do you know which one I would pick? … A fashion magazine in order to see how women will dress a century after my passing. And these rags would tell me more about humanity’s future than philosophers, novelists, preachers, or scholars.”
It’s not just that the bold stripes of a day dress, the sweep of a shawl, the geometry of the bustle and the height of a top hat registered visually among many of the leading Impressionists, resulting in paintings -– say, Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day, or Degas’ The Millinery Shop — that have become touchstones of modern art. Or that ready-to-wear came into its own, along with the department store, at this point in time, placing fashion within reach. It’s all this -– and more.
By the time we take our leave of the exhibition, simultaneously wearied and exhilarated, we’ve arrived at a new understanding of the modern self.
What’s striking about the holiday of Pesach isn’t its historicity so much as its contemporaneity. There, I’ve said it.You would think that I would be most quick to praise the festival’s biblical origins, the 9th-century roots of the haggadah, or, at the very least, great grandma’s Depression-era dishes.
While there’s much to be said for each one of these historical phenomena, what really hits home is how the repertoire of Pesach-related objects, activities, and foodstuffs grows and grows and grows.
Several years ago, Moses action figures capable of “articulating” their joints in 16 different directions took pride of place at the holiday table. “This pint sized hero can bring a miraculous new level of excitement to your Seder,” gushed advertisements, suggesting that this most agile of biblical heroes would make for a very good guest, indeed.
Last year, the New American Haggadah was all the rage. Panned or praised, it was the talk of the town. Virtually everyone I knew had one.
This year’s crop includes frogs, flies and locusts — in the shape of nail decals — as well as various and sundry apps that render the seder a virtual experience. The haggadah apps, which are said to provide “interactivity and surprise and layers of information,” are available from iTunes and other online vendors for a nominal fee. As for the decals, which promise to “take your seder to the next level,” you’d better hurry. Amazon has only a few sets left in stock.
Some of us may roll our eyes or scratch our heads at the prospect of a seder at which participants alternatively flutter their fingers or use them to tap, tap, tap away. Others among us might even give voice to dark thoughts about the dissolution of tradition and lament the ways in which novelty seems to have trumped history.
I prefer to look on the bright side. What extends the meaning — the shelf life, so to speak — of this ancient Jewish holiday is its malleability. An exercise in both tradition and innovation, Pesach gives new meaning to the practice of sustainability.
Having had the not-so-good fortune to experience two snowstorms within the course of three days, first in D.C. and then in N.Y., I thoroughly enjoyed the balmy weather I had the good luck to experience over Spring Break while visiting Palo Alto, where I had gone to deliver a series of talks at Stanford.When not holding forth or taking a side trip to glorious San Francisco, I had the opportunity to sit outside without a hat, gloves or a heavy overcoat: one of life’s simple pleasures. More splendid still was the opportunity to sit outdoors while lounging around a pool. Most of my fellow loungers were glued to their laptops, iPads or some other newfangled device, rarely lifting their heads from the screen to take in their surroundings. No surprise, there: after all, we were in that spangled neighborhood known as Silicon Valley.
But I couldn’t resist the temptation to slow down, to breathe deeply, to eschew the company of my laptop and to absorb the light, the bright and cheery flowers and the palm trees. In this, I was one with Isaac Bashevis Singer who years ago, in a 1948 article in the Jewish Daily Forward, extolled their many virtues. “The palm trees especially made a great impression on me,” he wrote of the time he spent in Miami Beach. They “created a mood in me, and maybe in other people, too.”
I’ve always loved Singer’s botanical observations. But from afar. This time around, in close proximity to palm trees which, the novelist related, “are like trees and not like trees,” I knew exactly what he meant.
There was an awful lot in Palo Alto to dazzle the senses and tickle the imagination, from the beauty of the Stanford campus and the intellectual bravura of its faculty and students to the seeming incongruity of the Palo Alto kollel.
But it was those palm trees that really held me rapt.
In what has become an annual ritual all its very own, advertisements for kosher wine now spring up much like tulip bulbs in the weeks preceding the holiday of Passover. While it’s been years since Manischewitz was the only potable commonly found on the seder table, the variety of kosher wines continues to grow at an unusually fast clip.Hailing from Israel and France, Chile and California, Argentina, Italy and even Croatia, they are so numerous that they now warrant the publication of a Kosher Wine Guide, whose pages are filled with glossy advertisements for kosher Chardonnay, Shiraz, Malbec and other “wines no one can pass over.”
Ethnographers, historians and sociologists are having a field day trying to account for the ways in which religion and consumption are now allies rather than rivals. They puzzle, and rightly so, over the implications of this union and what it portends.
Once upon a time, it was widely thought that modernity and its many blandishments diminished opportunities for religious expression. But if these advertisements for kosher wine and for luxurious Passover holidays by the sea are any indication, things have become far more complex, blurring the line between the worldly and the other-worldly.
I suspect that David Brooks would agree. Writing on “The Orthodox Surge” in last week’s Times, he could barely contain his enthusiasm for the “impressive” snack section, the variety of cheeses and the specially designed, squeeze-free Sabbath sponges available at the Brooklyn kosher food emporium, Pomegranate.
The latter, he writes, “looks like any island of upscale consumerism, but deep down it is based on a countercultural understanding of how life should work.” Warming to his topic, the Times columnist goes on to note that what fuels the lives of prototypical Pomegranate shoppers is not consumerism so much as a “collective covenant with God,” whose laws “infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance.”
Pending a field trip to Pomegranate, we’ll have to take Mr. Brooks’ word for it and trust to his reading of the situation. In the meantime, I’m going to stock up on a few bottles of Kosher Malvazija, the latest offering from Zagreb.
Meteorologists thundered and the skies glowered as a major snowstorm loomed large on the horizon, threatening to thin the ranks of the audience for Zalmen Mlotek’s concert, “One Hundred Years of Yiddish Music,” which took place earlier this week at the DC-JCC.
Happily, music trumped meteorology. Showing their support for and interest in the sounds and sensibility of Yiddish, people — some of them even wielding canes — came out in force.
Their efforts were rewarded by a concert that not only showcased Zalmen Mlotek’s artistry and that of his special guest, Cantor Arianne Brown of Congregation Adas Israel, whose filigreed rendition of that old chestnut, Mein Yidishe Mame had the audience in tears. It also underscored the ways in which music constitutes community.
These days, we’re apt to think that the best way to engage with music is to listen to its rhythms within the confines of our own personal, digitally-enhanced space. I don’t disagree. But going by my experience, and that of my seatmates, at Mr. Mlotek’s performance the other evening, there’s something to be said for listening within the company of others.
For a few hours on a wintry Tuesday, it offered a form of communion with history and sentiment and, above all, with one another, that is increasingly hard to find.