I’ve just returned from a busman’s holiday in San Francisco where I ate myself silly, walked until my shins ached and talked and talked — with former GW students and their families (what a treat!), with colleagues, with friends — until my voice turned into a veritable foghorn.
I had come to San Francisco at the invitation of the Contemporary Jewish Museum to give a presentation about the relationship between mid-century design and the Jewish experience, the subject of a current exhibition “Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Design.” For years now, I’ve been interested in the ways in which taste and style are as much collective phenomena as individual ones and am grateful to the museum for the opportunity to share some of my thoughts on the topic.
What really galvanized me, though, was the Contemporary Jewish Museum itself. Housed in a former power station that once provided electricity to downtown San Francisco and fortuitously located in a bustling area of San Francisco — the Yerba Buena district — that draws visitors and natives alike, the museum is a monument to thinking big.
But it’s not just the museum’s compelling location or its visually arresting architecture that powers the imagination. What really gets things going is the institution’s commitment to re-conceptualizing the ways in which museums might function these days.
Taking its cue from teaching hospitals, the Contemporary Jewish Museum likens itself to a teaching museum. Under the innovative stewardship of its new executive director, Lori Starr, it doesn’t just mount exhibitions, dispense information or engage in creative programming (an “Out of Order Seder,” anyone?). Without a permanent collection of its own, the CJM, as it’s called, places more of a premium on process than on display, on exposure more than exhortation, on collaboration in lieu of showmanship. It invites participation at every turn, from commissioning artwork and sponsoring pop-up stores like Dwell, a timely response to its current exhibition, to bringing educators together with technologists so that they might benefit from one another’s company.
In the course of things, the CJM reverses the traditional relationship between the front of the house and the back of the house, between what is known and how we know it, underscoring the primacy of discovery. It calls on the viewer as much as the curator to make connections.
What a concept! Here’s hoping the notion of a teaching museum given over to Jewish culture in all of its many manifestations will serve as a beacon bright from coast to coast.
In our age of digitized this, that and the other thing, I often wonder — and worry — about the kinds of sources that will be available to future generations. What will become of history, as we know it? Will the chroniclers of the 21st century have materials to draw on as they take the measure of American Jewish life?
If this week was any indication, there’s little cause for concern. American Jewish history is kept alive and well and nourished by those in the food business, from Russ & Daughters in New York to DGS Delicatessen in D.C.
To set the bar high (yes, bad pun intended), consider the New Yorker, which just published a piece about the debut of Russ & Daughters Cafe, whose décor as well as bill of fare celebrates the Lower East Side of yesteryear. “The Café is a master class in how to court both the old and the new, imbued with a hard-earned air of authority and gorgeously designed to pay detailed homage to Russ & Daughters’ history,” the magazine noted admiringly.
And then, on the heels of the New Yorker article, came word, courtesy of a former student, of the latest offering from DGS Delicatessen in D.C.: Delicatessen After Dark, which this past week paid its own version of homage to the summer resorts of the Catskills, or more to the point, to the steady round of alcoholic libations its Jewish patrons reportedly imbibed while around the pool, in the dining room and late at night while laughing away at the comic antics of aspiring performers. “Delicatessen After Dark,” its website explains, “is a celebration of the new delicatessen drinking culture inspired by our grandparents’ long nights in Lower East Side taverns, getaways to Florida and jazzy escapades to the Catskills.”
Drinking culture? I was under the impression that our ancestors were more inclined towards quaffing seltzer and variously flavored sodas, among them black cherry, cream and Cel-Ray tonic than spirits.
But no matter. Future generations, curious about the everyday lives of their forbears, can now look to restaurants and their proprietors for the details. They’re the ones, after all, who are most zealously tending to the flame of history.
This past week marked the debut of GW’s Program in Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts, which has been in the works for quite some time now. Although I’ve written often, at some length and with passion about the program here and elsewhere, I’m delighted to report that nothing quite beats the thrill of implementation.
To set things in motion, GW hosted a three day retreat for students and faculty before the formal start of classes. Actually, to call it a ‘retreat’ isn’t quite apt: ‘embrace’ is more like it. On the go from morning to night, we went behind the scenes at GW’s museum-in-process and gathered in front of the footlights at Theater J; participated in a master class on Jewish art song and another class on trans-media and the Jews; and listened as professionals from a wide variety of institutions from grand museums to aspiring ones spoke freely about the challenges they face, day in and day out. Through it all, the students began to lay claim to and take the measure of the vast array of treasures, both human and institutional, that make up the arts and culture scene in D.C.
Our whirlwind encounter, at once dazzling and dizzying, was called ‘Mosaic,” a testament to the process by which fragments constitute a whole, as well as a call to the students to pick up the pieces that define Jewish culture and to fit, or, as the current lingo would have it, “embed,” them in new patterns of meaning.
It won’t be easy. But the rewards of thinking smartly and imaginatively about loss and absence, demystification and exposure, process and context – to name just a few of the themes that surfaced, time and again, these past few days – are well within reach.
The Jewish holiday of Shavuoth, which just took place, is associated with many things: Harvest fruits or bikkurim; Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah and, on a more quotidian note, the eating of cheese cake and other dairy comestibles. These associations keep the age-old yontef in circulation. But now and again, modern-day life intrudes, adding a grace note to the proceedings.
Like many of my coreligionists, I had planned on eating a slice or two of cheese cake in the course of the holiday. In search of New York’s finest version, I made a beeline for William Greenberg Jr. Desserts on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a bakery known far and wide for its pastries. By the time I had arrived on the scene, on the Tuesday afternoon preceding the start of the holiday, none was to be had. “We’re all sold out,” glumly explained the woman behind the counter, one of a handful of longstanding employees who hailed originally from the Philippines. She then added that she was caught off-guard by the pent-up demand for a product which usually doesn’t sell out. “What’s going on?”
I volunteered that a holiday was in the offing. “What kind of holiday?” she asked. “Shavuoth,” I replied. “Spell it,” she commanded. Which I dutifully did, not that it clarified anything. On the contrary. Even more puzzled than before — what kind of American holiday was Shavuoth? — but undaunted, the Greenberg Desserts employee then turned to one of her co-workers and told her to order more cheese cakes for the morrow. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that by then, it would probably be too late: Those customers who were apt to mark the holiday with a cheese cake were not too likely to be purchasing one on Shavuoth itself. I hope that wiser heads prevailed. Otherwise, William Greenberg Jr. Desserts was going to have a surfeit of cheese cakes on its shelves — and it would be all my fault.
The other sweet little holiday-related moment I experienced this year took place not in a bakery but at shul, where, at the conclusion of the service, the congregation’s children placed fruits and flowers at the foot of the Ark. One of their number, a boy of about 7 or 8, had made a poster in honor of the occasion, the details of which he was rather keen on sharing publicly. Drawing himself up tall, he proceeded to explain in the preternaturally mature manner of a smart Upper West Side kid that his artwork contained “approximately” 10 petals, which symbolized the “approximately” Ten Commandments. The congregation, fittingly enough, erupted in laughter.
These two incidents are not going to supplant Mount Sinai in our collective imagination, of that I’m sure. All the same, they put me in mind of the ways in which the unanticipated encounter sustains tradition. You never know what’s going to happen.
Now that the term has come to an end, I’m ready to trade my to-do list for a to-see list and to catch up on exhibitions, films and other cultural activities whose pursuit had eluded me in the course of the academic year.
At the top of my list was the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition, Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War. Although its title left something to be desired, the exhibition’s contents promised an eye-opening and possibly even an unsettling experience, or so I was led to believe by Edward Rothstein’s rave review in the New York Times. This display of Civil War textiles, of quilts and children’s clothing, military uniforms and mosquito netting, he wrote, “turns Americana back into history.” With such a strong endorsement, who could resist?
That GW is just about to open a museum devoted in large measure to textiles also fueled my interest in this particular exhibition. I was eager to learn more about the most current museological practices of display and interpretation and how to make textiles sing — or, at the very least, tell a story.
As it happens, stories abound in Homefront & Batttlefield: of soldiers who ditched their uniforms because they were too heavy to wear in the hot Southern climate; of slaves who were uniformly dressed in the cheapest kind of fabric known as “plantation cloth”; of Quakers from Vermont who, refusing to purchase anything at all that was the product of slave labor, opened “free labor” stores; of how the word ‘shoddy,’ a textile term denoting recycled wool, entered our cultural vocabulary as a synonym for sub-par.
A stunning array of artifacts — quilts, sample books, clothing, photographs, signage — gives shape and structure to these stories. But, and it’s a big one, the exhibition’s design, from its deployment of chat labels to its lighting, makes it rather difficult to align artifact and interpretation. I expended a lot of energy angling my body this way and that so that I could be in a better position to read the small print. A telescope would have come in handy.
In an exhibition where the items on display stand on their own and don’t require a helping hand, this flaw may not constitute too much of a problem. In an exhibition like this one where, with the exception of the glorious quilts which were effectively displayed, so much is either unfamiliar or small scaled, the disunion between artifact and interpretation posed a real obstacle.
What should have been an encounter with history turned out to be an exercise in frustration, and an expensive one, at that. I ended up purchasing the catalogue and reading about, rather than experiencing, the past.
As I write, thousands of GW students and their families gather excitedly on the Mall to celebrate their graduation. Flanked on one side by the U.S. Capitol and on the other by the Washington Monument, they face a galaxy of notables on the dais whose words of both praise and exhortation will fill the air. This is Washington at its most Washingtonian — grand, exultant, enduring.
A few miles away, at 415 M Street, there’s another kind of Washington, one which increasing numbers of GW students have come to discover through their classes and internships. This part of town, known to many as Mt. Vernon Square, is humble, modest and in a continuous state of flux. It’s a monument to change.
Consider 415 M Street, whose very address — so direct and to the point — underscores the neighborhood’s lack of pretension. Built in the 1860s as a family dwelling, this brick row house subsequently became home to a succession of institutions: The Young Men’s Hebrew Association, the Hebrew Home for the Aged, an Orthodox synagogue known, with no muss or fuss, as Shomrei Shabbos (Keepers of the Sabbath). Later still, before reverting back to private ownership, it housed the Church of Jesus Christ as well as the Metropolitan Community Church. These days, having changed hands once again, 415 M is about to be converted into a condominium.
Taken as a whole, the building’s history is a familiar story of changing demographics, urban succession and gentrification. What renders its history more poignant still is the fairly recent discovery of a second floor mural, whose starry blue sky and half moon of Hebrew letters once hovered above the synagogue’s Ark, anchoring it in space and within the collective imagination of Shomrei Shabbos’s small band of congregants.
Over time, a window was inserted into the wall that contained the mural, disrupting its visual integrity. Its colors have faded, too. What’s more, in a well-intentioned but historically suspect attempt to restore the mural to its full glory, a recent owner of 415 M added a winged lion to the display, complicating matters.
What will become of the mural is anyone’s guess. The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington has expressed a keen interest in safeguarding the artifact’s future. Toward that noble end, this steward of Washington’s Jewish past has launched a fund-raising campaign to secure the necessary funds with which to remove, stabilize, conserve and preserve it. Let’s hope the organization’s efforts will be successful and that this colorful fragment of American Jewish history will be able to take its rightful place among the signs and wonders of the nation’s capital.
Late last week, I had the opportunity to visit with the executive of a foundation which intends on closing its doors for good within the next five years. This philanthropic venture is such a valuable asset to the Jewish community, a supporter of some of its most smartly conceived and innovative programming, that its decision to “sunset,” as the current lingo would have it, is rather puzzling. Why not continue doing good work, especially if money is no object?
I put this question to my host who explained that the organization’s founder strongly believed that the longer a philanthropy endured, the more it ran the risk of departing from the intentions of its original sponsors. Far better, he claimed, to think in terms of a specific life span than of the longue duree.
I suppose those who inhabit the foundation world, much less the beneficiaries of its largesse, might take exception. But from where I sit, as an historian, it’s hard to argue with this philanthropist’s perspective. In fact, I can’t help wonder whether other Jewish institutions might even possibly entertain it. The communal landscape is chock-a-block with facilities long past their prime, facilities that struggle valiantly to hold on even as their constituency and their raison d’etre are increasingly attenuated, the consequence of demographic as well as ideological change.
Synagogues are especially vulnerable. Among the very first institutions to be established, and with such high hopes, too, they seem to enjoy a run that lasts no more than a generation or two before their fortunes change – and not for the better. There’s much to be said for their persistence and for the dedication of those members who keep things going against great odds. And yet, there’s nothing quite as dispiriting as sitting on a Shabbat morning in a sanctuary that had accommodated hundreds of worshippers, but now attracts just a handful of them, its carved wooden pews and imaginative lighting fixtures, once the cynosure of its congregants, now looking somewhat worse for wear, its lustre dimmed.
We hear a lot these days about sustainability. Most of the time,that conversation fastens on the physical environment. Perhaps it’s time to start talking about our institutional resources as well.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.