Many of us live in the moment, texting and tweeting away as if there’s no tomorrow. But now and again, the long arm of the past casts a hulking shadow over our contemporary lives, compelling us to reckon with the power of history.
The recent release of the film, “Monuments Men,” is one case in point. Another is the discovery in Munich of a cache of more than a thousand paintings that had been looted from museums and private Jewish homes by the Nazis. Believed to have been lost or destroyed, these valuable artworks have now resurfaced in what some call a triumph of good over evil. A third case in point is “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” a forthcoming exhibition at New York’s Neue Galerie, which provides a context in which to situate the Nazis’ attempts to purge 1930s Germany of modernist art and those who championed it.
And, yes, there’s more. On Tuesday evening, March 25th at 7 p.m., the Embassy of the Republic of Poland, in partnership with GW’s Program in Judaic Studies, will host the Frieda Kobernick Fleischman Lecture in Judaic Studies, whose roster of distinguished speakers over the years has included Pierre Birnbaum, James Loeffler and Alisa Solomon. This year, Jonathan Brent, the executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, will do the honors. (To register, please send an email to Washington.email@example.com)
Titled “The Last Books: Recovering the East European Jewish Past,” Mr. Brent’s presentation explores an issue of considerable delicacy: the fate of Jewish books and manuscripts whose readers are no more.
The story he tells — one of pathos and hope in equal measure — deserves a wide hearing. I hope you’ll be able to join us for this latest brush with history.
The other evening, I — along with 1,999 others — crowded the concert hall at the Kennedy Center to hear the internationally renowned pianist, Evgeny Kissin, perform.
Some members of the audience were drawn by the opportunity to see Kissin in person. Others were drawn by the program, which featured a number of works not usually part of his repertoire: sonatas and rhapsodies by Alexander Abramovich Krein, Mikhail Milner and Alexander Moiseveich Veprik, Russian Jewish composers of the interwar years whose compositions are known only to the cognoscenti. And still others came out that chilly wintry night warmed by the prospect of seeing and hearing one of the world’s leading musicians not play, but speak — and in Yiddish, no less.
Whatever their varied motivations, everyone in the hall was mindful that the evening’s performance was an occasion or, as one of my fellow seatmates put it succinctly, a “moment.” After all, it’s not often that Chopin gives way to Milner.
The opportunity to hear a musician’s voice is rarer still. Most of the time we get to hear them say a few words when announcing the name of the encore they’re just about to play, but then, typically, the sound of their voice is drowned out by rumbles of appreciation from the audience. As for a soloist of any caliber, let alone one of Kissin’s stature, to get up from the piano, stand all alone and unencumbered, at center stage, and recite the poetry of Bialik, Peretz and Glatstein, what can I say? You had to be there!
Applying his textured, powerful and colorful pianism to Yiddish, Kissin made the language dance. He animated its words, sending them forth into the vast reaches of the auditorium. Even if you didn’t know Yiddish, or had only a passing and highly sentimentalized understanding of it, you couldn’t help be moved by the ways in which Kissin brought out its tensile strength, drollery and clear-eyed view of the human condition.
A celebration of sound as well as an homage to Jewish culture, the concert was produced by the Kennedy Center and Pro Musica Hebraica in yet another of its smartly and imaginatively conceived programs. It reminds us that music is as likely to be found in the cadences of Yiddish as in those of the classical tradition.
No matter how often I watch them, two classic comic routines have me in stitches every time. The first, the handiwork of Mel Blanc and Jack Benny, pivots around the sounds of “Sy, Si, Sue.” A marvel of timing and of linguistic ingenuity, the sketch is the verbal equivalent of ping pong as the two comedians sally back and forth and it’s really funny.
My other favorite bit is also bound up with language and features Sid Caesar, who died last week. You know it, I’m sure: It’s the one in which the comedian bamboozles his audience into thinking he’s a high stepping, much decorated military man when, in fact, he’s a doorman with a whistle.
What makes this sketch amusing is not just the way in which it confounds expectations, subverting our reading of clothing. What really tickles the funny bone is how Caesar plays with sound, barking commands in what seems to be German, the language of authority, when he’s actually speaking gibberish, the language of nonsense.
Here and elsewhere, the celebrated comedian was playing — some might even say toying — with Yiddish , a language whose cadences, rhythms and gestures he picked up from his immigrant parents, but whose literature and history and elevated aspirations eluded him, as it did so many of his generation.
Sounding off in Yiddish, and on national television, no less, Sid Caesar introduced millions of Americans to an age-old language with which they were entirely unfamiliar. But its public debut came at a cost: By rendering Yiddish comically, the stuff of silly business, much got lost in translation.
History, I tell my students and anyone else willing to listen, is a rather curious dance between retention and erasure. The stories we tell, the monuments we build, the exhibitions we mount, the pageants we enact and the rituals we perform make their way, often uneasily, between these two poles of human activity.
Lest anyone doubt the veracity of this observation, tuning into and taking the measure of the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi would make abundantly clear what I mean. Pulling out all the stops and giving new meaning to spectacle, the Russians put their history on display: The Cyrillic alphabet danced, chariots floated magically in the air, brightly colored onion domed structures bobbed up and down, the Black Sea rushed in and out and even Chagall himself put in a brief appearance.
What was omitted from this narrative of national pride was more stunning still: revolution, Communism, gulags, the Siege of Leningrad, the Leningrad Seven — the list goes on and on. I didn’t expect to see an acknowledgement of pogroms or the Doctor’s Plot or the repression of Soviet Jewry, certainly not in a forum given over to effusions of the national spirit. All the same, so conspicuously and painfully absent were some of the most important personalities and moments of Czarist and Soviet history that it made this pyrotechnical pageant about as compelling as an ice capade: Skillful, yes, but icy cold at its core.
It got to the point where I couldn’t watch any more. Razzle dazzle can go only so far in shoring up the spirit before it turns hollow.
Long before The Chosen, Chaim Potok’s celebrated novel about the often fraught relationship between the conventions of American boyhood and those of Orthodox Judaism, became a best-seller, the American painter Bernard Perlin took to tempera to paint a scene of two yarmulke-clad boys in the New York subway, engrossed in one another and in conversation. Situating them against a wall strewn with graffiti, the work, Orthodox Boys, both encloses its subjects within an urban environment and isolates them from it.Perlin, who died last week at the age of 95, enjoyed a measure of success with this painting when, in 1948, it, along with other examples of his artistry, was displayed at the prestigious gallery of M. Knoedler & Co in a one-man show reportedly engineered by Lincoln Kirstein, then one of New York’s reigning cultural impresarios.
Although some critics at the time thought that Perlin had been unduly influenced by Ben Shahn — even as the Times applauded the younger artist’s “decided technical brilliance,” it felt his work was “impoverished and enslaved by [his] admiration for his mentor — Kirstein was rather taken with the young artist, so much so that he would go on to purchase Orthodox Boys for his own collection. That the guiding light of the New York City Ballet, a man famously indifferent and at times even downright antagonistic towards his Jewish background, should have fancied Orthodox Boys is one for the books, a testament to the power of friendship. “He liked me, he liked the life I led, and he liked hearing about it,” Perlin subsequently recalled.
Ultimately, the two fell out. “I had been persona grata for years,” the artist wrote, but then suddenly I became “very much a non.” Before this breach in their relationship, they had frequented a circle of gay artists, museum curators, arts patrons and intellectuals vividly depicted in David Luddick’s 2001 book, Intimate Companions. In it, Perlin publicly acknowledged how much he owed to Kirstein, noting that “he opened ways to whatever success I have had.”
Orthodox Boys is now in the possession of the Tate Gallery in London where, in the wake of its creator’s death, one hopes it will attract attention once again.
Every week brings with it an often unwieldy barrage of experiences, encounters, observations and remarks. At its conclusion, I like to retrieve one encounter or, better yet, one remark, that sums things up. This week’s candidate: “Wear a sweater.”
As it happens, the reception area in which the administrative assistant for the Program in Judaic Studies sits is unusually chilly. Adjacent to the building’s entrance, it is constantly assailed by drafts as a steady stream of students march in and out, often neglecting to close the front door. It doesn’t help matters that the heating in that part of the building is erratic, at best.
In an attempt to make said staff member, a most valuable member of the team, a little bit more comfortable, I bought a throw for her chair so that, when the temperature dropped, she could wrap herself in it (the throw, that is, not the chair). Pleased with this new purchase, which kept her body (and, most especially, her legs) warm, my admin submitted the receipt for the throw to the fiscal powers-that-be so that I could be reimbursed. So far, so good, no?
No. The story then takes a strange turn. The authorities declined to “allow” the reimbursement. It wasn’t that the item in question was too expensive: after all, it cost under $30. Rather, the expenditure was deemed an inappropriate one. Near as I can tell, the university’s financial gatekeepers defined the throw as a decorative object rather than a utilitarian one and ruled that such things were simply not reimbursable. In retrospect, I would have been better off defining the throw as a blanket, I suppose. But I get ahead of myself here.
This situation could not stand, said I to myself. It wasn’t the money; it was the principle. And so, I asked my admin to resubmit the form and, in the space marked “rationale,” to explain why the throw was a necessity, not an ornament.
Once again, the claim was rejected. This time, I took matters in hand and wrote directly to the fiscal powers-that-be, explaining at some length why the throw (I mean blanket) was necessary. Peppering my explanation with references to ‘efficiency’ and ‘congenial work environment,’ I thought I had made a really convincing case. I hadn’t.
Rejected for a third and probably final time, the claim for reimbursement came back with the following message: “Can’t your admin wear a sweater?” To which I wearily responded: She does and sometimes two, as well as a scarf.
I’m still waiting for an answer.
I start the new academic term, which is right around the corner, with butterflies in my stomach. And yet, unlike the Sunday evenings before the Monday mornings of yesteryear when I experienced a similar sensation, this one is born of excitement, not anxiety.Each semester brings with it a sense of possibility as my colleagues and I set about exposing our students to the fullness of the human condition and, concomitantly, of bringing out the best in them. Spring 2014 is no exception. The varied courses GW’s Program in Judaic Studies offers are designed to do just that.
Immersing our undergraduates in rabbinic thought and Jewish philosophy, the Jewish literatures of Latin America and the United States, Jewish women’s history and the history of the ghetto, to name just a few of our offerings, should make it abundantly clear that there’s so much more to Jewish education than Hebrew school.
Our public programs, which are open to the community, also make that point, expanding our intellectual as well as our geographical horizons. Over the next few months, East European Jewry looms especially large in our sights. For starters, Professor Marek Kucia, a sociologist from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, will be on campus in mid-March where, among other things, he’ll be delivering a talk on the Europeanization of Holocaust memory.
A week or so later, the Program’s annual Frieda Kobernick Fleischman Lecture will feature Jonathan Brent, the executive director of the YIVO Institute in New York, who will be speaking about his recent bibliographic adventures in Vilna, where thousands of once well-thumbed Jewish books remain, inert, on the shelves. Co-sponsored by and held at the Polish Embassy, Mr. Brent’s talk promises to affect both our intellect and our emotions.
This is as it ought to be. Judaic Studies, I’ve come to see, and hope you do, too, is not just a discipline or a field of study. It’s also a way of contemplating the world – and of emerging just a bit wiser for it.
You never know where you’re going to come across the most fascinating theories about human behavior. No, I’m not referring to the recent contretemps about the ASA boycott, though well I might. Instead, I have in mind early 20th century notions about the ways in which people dressed.Having once published a book, A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character, and the Promise of America about the relationship between clothing and identity, I thought I had covered the waterfront, as the old saw would have it. But in reading a recently published article by my colleague, Steven Fine, about polychromy in the ancient world (Academia.edu), I came across something I had never known before: a set of references to a late 19th and early 20th century discussion that linked any number of Jewish cultural practices to colorblindness. Reportedly a Jewish physical trait, colorblindness was used back in the day to explain a host of things about the Jews, from their lack of a painterly imagination to their penchant for dressing in bright colors.
The handiwork of scientists rather than cranks, this discussion appeared in authoritative, eminently respectable publications such as the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1890) and was later circulated by the equally redoubtable Jewish Encyclopedia (1902). Here, and elsewhere, readers learned that that the high proportion of colorblindness within the Jewish community resulted in a “general lack of interest in the delights of colour, especially in its more refined forms,” the “absence of any painters of great ability among the Jews and the want of taste shown by Jewesses of the lower grades of society.”
Who knew?! More to the point, who would have thought to find this material in an essay about the ancient world? A testament to Professor Fine’s erudition and his wide-ranging command of sources, it is also an invitation to read widely and in areas outside of one’s immediate interests.
As 2013 gives way to 2014, let’s open our eyes and take in the world. We’ll all be the better for it.
Now and again, people ask me how I came to be an historian, arguably not the most likely of careers for aspiring professional women of my generation. At a time when most of my peers were headed straight for law school, becoming an academic, especially one who trafficked in the history of the Jews, was somewhat off the beaten track. What influenced me, inquiring minds want to know. Did an inspiring college professor set me on my way? Had I experienced a moment of awakening at an ancient historic site? Was I inspired by Gibbons? Encouraged by my parents?
In response, I usually mumble something about the life of the mind, the challenges and joys of teaching, the thrill of research — and, yes, that my parents did actively encourage my scholarly pursuits.
But now, I come clean: The real reason I became an historian was Nancy Drew, the plucky heroine of the eponymous mystery series. I thrilled to her adventures, relished her way with a clue and delighted in her ability to put two and two together. I envied her clothes and her sporty car, of course, and fervently wished that I might have a dash or two of her aplomb, but what really got to me was the way she reasoned. From where I sat in my pretty floral bedroom, nobody could hold a candle to the girl detective whose powers of discernment and intellection — of sleuthing — were without compare. Nancy Drew made me think.
Imagine my despair when I learned only last week that some of the earliest Nancy Drew mysteries were riddled with racist and anti-Semitic characterizations. Writing in Tablet, Marjorie Ingall, a longtime Nancy Drew fan like myself, revealed that the first generation of mysteries left a lot to be desired when it came to depictions of the Jews and African Americans.
As one of the characters in The Clue of the Broken Locket would have it, I was “hornswaggled” by the news, profoundly disturbed and utterly baffled, too, by my failure to have noticed these cruel and mean spirited references. So much for my nascent powers of observation!
But wait. It turns out that beginning in 1959, the author of the series not only contemporized the plots and their prose but also removed the offensive passages. The Nancy Drew whose exploits lined my bookshelves did not harbor prejudice.
Phew! What a relief! I’d hate to think that I owed my career to a wrong turn.
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.