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Nov 23 15

Social climbing

This week marked the passing of Stephen Birmingham, the author of the 1967 best-seller, Our Crowd, an account of the German Jewish elite in America. With its “frothy” tales of the rich and famous within the American Jewish community, Birmingham’s book, as one reviewer put it, fell somewhere between “social history and elevated tattletale,” generating lots of interest among those who fancied both.

Jacob Schiff (seated, bottom right with white mustache and beard) and family. Source: New York Public Library

Jacob Schiff and his extended family figured prominently in “Our Crowd.” Source: NYPL

A novelist before he turned to history, Birmingham had a keen eye for the telling detail and the revealing anecdote. Story-telling rather than scholarship was his métier, prompting several prominent members of the academy to take him to task. Writing in Commentary, Marshall Sklare, the Brandeis University sociologist, publicly chided Birmingham for the casual way in which he documented his findings — his footnotes left a lot to be desired — as well as for his limitations in wrestling with the “serious implications of his material.” Still, Birmingham’s subject, the sociologist grudgingly conceded, was “certainly ripe for exploitation.”

Sklare was right about that. Even so, it’s been nearly 50 years since Our Crowd first saw the light of day and near as I can make out, the book has yet to be superseded or seriously challenged. Perhaps we’re due for another look. Any takers?

In the meantime, Birmingham’s lavishly detailed account of the tightly knit culture of America’s German-Jewish elite holds its own. That his book also imprinted the words, “our crowd,” on the contemporary Jewish imagination is an accomplishment to which few writers can lay claim.

Nov 15 15


It’s not often that what goes on within my classroom is of a piece with what goes on outside of it, but this week proved to be an exception. Context and curriculum, current events and history, came together in a timely convergence, making for animated discussion.

Exhibit installation/New York Times

Harlem On My Mind installation/New York Times

As recent and ongoing instances of racism on college campuses across the country came to light, prompting the resignation of a number of high-ranking university officials, the students in my graduate seminar were grappling with “Harlem On My Mind,” the 1969 exhibition that embroiled the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a series of confrontations with New York’s African-American community. Some argued that the Met was guilty of white privilege, and had no business exploring the history and culture of its neighbors to the north. Others adopted a more conciliatory posture, casting the exhibition as a gesture of reconciliation and rapprochement. And back and forth it went, generating more heat and irresolution than usual.

The very next day, the students in my undergraduate seminar on American Jewish history came face to face with a number of documents from the 1920s in which the powers-that-be at Harvard gave voice to animadversions against Jewish collegians. Lest a “surfeit of pansies,” as well as too many “decadent esthetes” and “precious cosmopolitans” call themselves Harvard men, quotas were instituted to curb the number of prospective Jewish applicants. It wasn’t easy to make our way through this material, a disturbing and sobering read under the best of circumstances, much less in November 2015. Nor could we take comfort from the notion that racist expression was a thing of the past when, clearly, it is not.

Most of the time, I’d like my students to leave my class with a spring in their step. This week, though, I’m hoping they left with a heavy heart.

Nov 2 15

The conversation

These days, we’re apt to pride ourselves on our communicative abilities, pointing to our continuous tweeting and texting. I don’t doubt for a nano-second that multiple and meaningful forms of exchange do take place, but honest-to-goodness conversation ain’t among them. I mean the old-fashioned kind of give-and-take, the sustained, lively, impromptu, generative discussion that entails two or more people actually talking to one another, face to face and with words, intonations and physical gestures.

Last Juan Munoz. Conversation Piece (1994-5). Flickr/cliff1066

Last Juan Munoz. Conversation Piece (1994-5). Flickr/cliff1066

You had only to be in the crowded room last week, when GW commemorated the centennial of Leo Frank’s lynching, to see for yourself the evocative power of conversation. Moderated by Blake Morant, the Dean of GW Law, “Reckoning with the Ghosts of Leo Frank,” as this event was called, featured David Kendall, the renowned Washington lawyer, and Steve Oney, author of the And the Dead Shall Rise, the definitive account of this tragic moment in American history.

The rise and fall of their voices held the audience spellbound, as did the high intelligence with which they addressed the many complicated issues at hand. Bringing passion and urgency to the proceedings as well as smarts, the three participants made history and the law come alive.

The same thing happened when, a few days later, Steve Oney visited my undergraduate seminar in American Jewish history. I’m not exactly sure what it was — his nonpareil descriptive powers, his easy interaction with the students or a combination of the two — but something about Mr. Oney’s presence and voice not only had everyone mesmerized but encouraged their participation as well.

Conversation, as many of us discovered or rediscovered this past week, is good for the soul.

Speaking of which, you may have noticed that my posts have not been as forthcoming as they usually are. It’s not that I’ve run out of things to say, heaven forfend. It’s that a series of seemingly intractable digital snafus have made a hash of things. Here’s hoping that you’ll bear with me, and the IT boys, as we seek a solution.

Oct 16 15

Holy week

Editor’s note: Due to technological disruptions, the blog was not up and running for a couple of weeks.

It’s been a big week for religion, what with Yom Kippur and the Papal visit. Those who had put their faith in contemporary polling data, which pointed to legions of the unaffiliated and the disinclined, were in for a surprise. Religious expression, it seemed, has not withered away under the impress of rapid and wholesale modernization, but remains rather resilient, even buoyant.

Chicago Meeting, 1893/Wikipedia

World’s Parliament of Religions Chicago Meeting, 1893/Wikipedia (Click to enlarge)

One of the most fascinating indices of religion’s contemporary hold on the body politic is the way in which religious practices once associated exclusively with the Orthodox Jewish community are now widely embraced by those outside of its immediate precincts. I have in mind here the Yom Kippur ritual of prostration, which accompanies the recitation of the Aleinu prayer, or what some call the “Great Aleinu.” An exercise, quite literally, in submission and humility, it calls on its participants to lower themselves to the ground.

Sounds weird, I suppose, yet another one of those curious, age-old practices in which Judaism abounds. But there’s something about the physicality and historicity of the act that renders it immensely powerful. Little wonder, then, that when encouraged by the clergy to “go prostrate yourselves,” large numbers of congregants obliged. What a sight!

Equally compelling from a visual perspective was the parade of faiths on display during the Pope’s memorial service at the World Trade Center. Clad in distinctive religious garb, representatives of the different faith communities that make up New York took center stage in a show of ecumenism and good will.

The last time so many different religions shared the stage was way back in 1893, at the opening ceremony of the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. As the Liberty Bell struck ten times, each strike representing one of the world’s great religions, a column of religious leaders filed into the hall.

Taking careful note of their “strange robes, turbans and tunics, crosses and crescents, flowing hair and tonsured heads,” one enraptured eyewitness went on to point out how “Jews, Mohammedans and all divisions of Christians seemed to be a rainbow of promise.” Some participants went further still, heralding the gathering as the “beginning of a new epoch of brotherhood and peace.”

Nothing came of those predictions. Let’s hope that this time around, something just might.

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.