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Apr 20 14


Lionized and lampooned, widely consumed and just as widely eschewed, gefilte fish looms large on the American Jewish landscape. Many years ago, the making of gefilte fish was the stuff of a rather humorous episode of The Goldbergs, introducing television audiences across the country to what was then a decidedly unfamiliar, even risible concoction of fish, eggs and matzoh meal. Its name alone seemed funny.

Gefilte fish and horseradish

Gefilte fish and horseradish/Flickr: Karen

The other day, meanwhile, the New York Times featured a story about gefilte fish on its front page — yes, on page one! — noting how a dwindling supply of whitefish, an essential ingredient, made it difficult for a goodly number of American Jews to serve the fishy dish at this year’s Seder. No laughing matter, that.

The article touched a nerve, inspiring fans and foes alike to weigh in. So numerous and varied were readers’ responses that the Times actually published a handful of them a few days later. “Scarcity of gefilte fish! This is the best news since the Red Sea parted,” cleverly opined one member of the public. Another grudgingly allowed that “Passover without gefilte fish is like Christmas without fruitcake.” Several more positively disposed readers couched their seasonal affinity for gefilte fish in terms of nostalgia, evoking warm memories of grandma.

What is it about gefilte fish that occasions such strong feelings, one way or another? Surely, it’s not only a matter of taste. After all, you don’t find too many people whinging publicly about schav or chopped liver. If you happen to find these two other staples of the East European Jewish diet objectionable, as many do, you simply don’t eat ‘em. No hue and cry, no public debate, accompanies that decision. But gefilte fish is another matter entirely.

I wish I knew why. Perhaps it has to do with the way in which earlier generations fulsomely celebrated this maychel. Way back in the 1940s, The Jewish Home Beautiful had this to say:

If there is any one particular food that might lay claim to being the Jewish national dish, gefilte fish is that food. This may be due to the fact that since it is associated with the Shabbat, it appears on our menus more frequently than do most of the other distinctly Jewish dishes. But the greatest factors making for its popularity are its intrinsically delectable qualities.

Could it be that taking a dim view of gefilte fish is all tangled up with identity politics, with an embrace of the universal at the expense of the particular? And conversely, that championing, or, at the very least, tolerating gefilte fish is an expression of Jewish pride?

Surely these are questions well worth pondering. In the meantime, as Pesach 5774 draws to a close, you can be certain of one thing: whitefish might come and go, but gefilte fish endures, generation after generation.

Apr 13 14

Let all who are hungry, come and eat

In Messages from My Father, Calvin Trillin’s celebrated account of growing up an American Jewish child in St. Joseph, Missouri, he wisely noted that upbringings have themes. Much the same can be said of the ways in which American Jews celebrate Passover. Every year, there seems to be a different theme, a different approach, to the age-old holiday.

Manischewitz American Matzos

Manischewitz American Matzos/

A couple of seasons ago, American Jews were all agog about a spate of new hagadot and inundated the blogosphere with comments about their content, physical appearance and, most especially, their authoritativeness. Another year, they turned their collective attention to Passover’s digitization, venting away on whether the latest app might diminish or augment the meaningfulness of the holiday.

This year, American Jewry’s thematic embrace of Passover centers on food. Whether online or in print, stories about what to eat are all the rage, eclipsing virtually everything else. Recipes trump ritual.

Some of these stories have to do with the adaptation of traditional standbys like matzoh balls or gefilte fish. Others reflect the globalization of Jewish cuisine, calling on readers to expand their repertoire of holiday fare: Think Turkish, not Polish! Still other accounts, their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks (at least I hope that’s the case), encourage readers to fill their glasses in the course of the Seder with the likes of Red Nile, a fiery cocktail of potato vodka, tomato juice, Arak and horseradish.

This year’s gastronomic commotion was sparked, I suspect, by the decision of the Orthodox Union, one of the nation’s leading kashruth authorities, to certify quinoa as a Kosher-for-Pesach product. For years, rabbis were reluctant to do so, arguing that even though quinoa was an herb, not a grain, it looked like a grain — and tasted like one, too – rendering it unfit for Passover consumption. But in 5774, after much study and contemplation, they reversed their position, prompting consumers to cheer “Hooray” at the prospect of banishing what an earlier generation of American Jews had once called “matzoh monotony.” Out with farfel and potatoes, in with quinoa!

A testament to its pliability, the food-centric perspective on Passover also makes sense when considered historically. American Jews have a long and distinguished tradition of culinary innovation. After all, they’re responsible for giving the world that singular invention: Chocolate-covered matzoh.

A sweet Pesach to one and all.

Apr 7 14

Star turn

Now and again, I have the opportunity to venture beyond my customary haunts and spend a weekend in another place and amidst another congregation as a scholar-in-residence. These “gigs,” as some of my colleagues are wont to call them, are no walk in the park. Yes, most pay handsomely. But they also give new meaning to ‘singing for one’s supper’: You’re called on to prepare and deliver anywhere from three to five different presentations within the space of 25 hours and sometimes on a Sunday morning, too. And since expectations tend to run really high, you have to be on your toes at all times.

Amish buggy near Lancaster Pa

Amish buggy near Lancaster, Pa. Flickr/denisbin

Time-consuming and emotionally draining, these ventures can also be hazardous to your health. If it’s your practice not to travel by car on Shabbat, you just might find yourself escorted along a highway or a deserted stretch with no sidewalks at 11 p.m. of a Friday night, wondering how on earth you managed to get yourself into this scary situation.

It’s worth it. There’s nothing like a close encounter with contemporary Jewish life at the grass roots to set you straight. Talk about a cold bath of reality. Your high minded theories quickly go out the window when you’re face to face with the direct consequences of changing demographics, widespread intermarriage, dwindling communal resources and a gnawing sense of frustration. Comforting bromides about the importance of continuity and constancy simply won’t do.

Having just completed a scholar-in-residence weekend at Temple Beth El of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I speak from experience. I returned home from my visit to this intellectually engaged and searching Conservative congregation feeling rather sobered, even chastened. Despite a keen sense of community and deep reservoirs of good will, its children have either moved away for good or they’ve intermarried. Or both.

Some have left the fold altogether; others feel much more comfortable within the precincts of the Reform rather than the Conservative movement. One way or another, a younger generation is not much in evidence at Temple Beth El. To compound matters, the local JCC has closed its doors for want of support and the local day school is no more. And yet, the members of Temple Beth El keep at it, cautiously optimistic that the situation will turn around one of these days.

I suspect that I was invited to Lancaster in the hope that my work on the American Jewish experience might shed some light on why things are the way they are: History pressed into the service of the present and the future. I hope I didn’t disappoint. All the same, I think I took away more from my scholar-in-residency than I brought to it.

Temple Beth El: I’m rooting for you.

Mar 9 14

Paper chase

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.

Last Books

Last Books: Recovering the East European Jewish Past flyer (click to enlarge)

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

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.

Mar 2 14

The sounds of music

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.

Musical notes

Musical notes. Flickr/Horia Varlan

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.

Feb 17 14

Funny business

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.

Sid Caesar Wikipedia

Sid Caesar/Wikipedia

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.

Feb 9 14

Razzle dazzle

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.

Stalin (defaced) and Gulag memorial, Muzeon, Moscow.

Stalin (defaced) and Gulag memorial, Muzeon, Moscow. Flickr/Garrett Ziegler. One aspect of Russian history that wasn’t portrayed in the Olympic opening ceremonies in Sochi.

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.

Feb 2 14

The buddy system

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.

Orthodox Boys 1948 by Bernard Perlin

Bernard Perlin, Orthodox Boys (1948)/Tate

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.

Jan 19 14

Wear a sweater

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.”

Warm sweater + big buttons

Warm sweater + big buttons. Flickr/Tasha

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.

Jan 13 14

School days

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.

Sunlit chair in old classroom

Sunlit chair in old classroom. Flickr/Jason Pier in DC

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.