I mean that literally. It’s not just that I spent much of this semester exploring the ways in which sound –intonation, volume, accent, music and noise — define the Jewish historical experience. I’ve also had the wonderful opportunity to take things even further by producing and hosting a concert this past week that featured one of my students, David Freeman, and his musical ensemble, Sha’ar.
It’s always a thrill to see one’s students perform outside the confines, and constraints, of the classroom. The thrill is greater still when their performance not only builds on their training but also extends, and enhances, its meaning.
And so it was last Tuesday evening, when an old-fashioned musicale with newfangled music unfolded amid the grand salon of a beautiful Dupont Circle home. Inspired by the compositions of Yedidia Admon, an Israeli composer whose work drew on both Western and Middle Eastern musical traditions, Sha’ar gives them a new spin — and, correspondingly, a new lease on life — introducing Admon to contemporary American audiences.
Sound filled the high-ceiled room, sweeping us up in its embrace. Some of us tapped our feet, others bobbed their heads and still others counted beats. It was hard to resist the pull of the music whose fusion of bass, clarinet, electric guitar and drums simultaneously put us in touch with the past and propelled us into the present.
I can’t imagine a better note on which to end the semester.
Two of the most fascinating, enriching exhibitions I’ve encountered of late have to do with the appurtenances of domesticity. One, a blockbuster at the grand Art Institute of Chicago, focuses on the three paintings Van Gogh made of his bedroom in the yellow house at Arles. The other, a decidedly modest affair at the post-modern Tribeca-based cultural institution known as Mmuseumm, is a recreation by artist Maira Kalman of her late mother’s closet.
Though they share a common theme — domestic, private space — the two exhibitions couldn’t be more different from one another. The Chicago show, which leisurely unfolds over the course of one high-ceilinged gallery after another, brings to bear all of the museum’s interpretive muscle, chronicling and interpreting the three versions of the sparely furnished, narrow little room where Van Gogh laid his head. The Mmuseumm’s teeny, 5 foot by 4 foot installation is tucked away in a grungy, downtown New York City alley. It’s filled with an array of neatly folded sweaters, carefully arranged shoes and other personal objects that once belonged to Sara Berman, Ms. Kalman’s mother.
Scale isn’t the only thing that distinguishes one exhibition from another. So, too, does color. In “Sarah Berman’s Closet,” everything is in white, the color that its eponymous owner fancied to the exclusion of all else. The Van Gogh show, in contrast, is awash in color: in various shades of green and yellows, reds and blues. What’s more, a brief film in which the museum’s conservation staff enthusiastically discusses how it researched the pigments Van Gogh used is among the exhibition’s highlights.
There’s more. The Van Gogh show draws on all the latest bells and whistles to deepen its visitors’ understanding of the artistic process. I’m not a fan of digital interventions or mediations, but I found downright thrilling, even inspiring, the artful and sophisticated ways in which the Art Institute of Chicago made use of the latest technology to reveal the differences in palette and brush stroke among the three paintings, differences not readily apparent to the naked eye.
Sarah Berman’s “Closet,” in striking contrast, is an immediate and as unmediated an experience as can be: What you see is what you see. The other evening, at a talk at the Jewish Museum, Alex Kalman, Maira’s son and the co-founder and director of Mmuseumm, put it this way: In a world where virtually everything is a simulacrum of something else, an encounter with real objects and real people in real time is a necessary corrective.
For all their manifest and considerable differences, both exhibitions are bound by a shared fidelity to the little things in life. Each in its own way makes clear why people as diverse as Van Gogh and Sarah Berman found meaning in the mundane.
And so should we.
“What brings you to Boca? Business or pleasure?” asks the cab driver. I’m too busy holding on for dear life to answer. No sooner had we left the airport than the car was engulfed in a rainstorm so intense that it’s bucking like a bronco. To add insult to injury, the rain is so thick you can’t see a damn thing. In an attempt to calm his nerves as he threads his way, the cab driver is engaging in what is otherwise known as polite conversation. In an attempt to calm mine, I’ve started to sing quietly to myself — one of my favorite Hebrew songs. Okay, it’s really a prayer.
Eventually, the storm subsides and after what feels like an eternity, we finally reach my hotel. But the gods have not yet finished with me. It turns out that the cab driver’s credit card system has stopped working. Since I don’t have enough cash on hand to pay the unexpectedly hefty bill, we have to phone someone in the dispatcher’s office to connect us to someone else who’ll authorize the use of my credit card. That takes some doing, too.
After a while, the situation is properly “sorted,” as the British might say. I then make my weary way inside the hotel and approach the check-in desk. Since I’m the guest of a local university, the cost of my lodgings has been taken care of, but not my “incidentals.” I’m asked to furnish a credit card as well as a photo ID and to sign here and there and, ‘yes, once more, please, at the bottom.’ As I do, I see with delight that my room comes with a balcony. I can’t wait to be one with the palm trees, to gaze upon the pool with a restorative gin and tonic in hand.
Nope. That’s not to be. While the room does have a balcony, it overlooks the parking lot and the garbage disposal area. Someone is having a very good laugh at my expense. I go to bed.
The next day is full. There’s breakfast with a friend, a quick stop at the beach so that I might gaze longingly at the water, followed by lunch with the cousins at “the club,” and then two speeches in quick succession, one for the “academic community,” at 4 p.m. and the other for prospective donors at 7. To accommodate both audiences, my host and I have dinner at 5 o’clock.
The place is jammed. With sportily-attired people. And walkers. And wheelchairs and some newfangled form of locomotion that I’ve never before seen. The energy is both palpable and familiar. Though I’ve only been to Boca once before, I recognize the scene. Perhaps from a “Seinfeld” episode. It’s sad — but gallant.
I deliver my second talk of the day, which has to do with the destruction of the Torah by the Nazis. I feel a profound disconnect, a fundamental incongruity, between my chosen theme and the setting and wonder if I’m the only one.
Travel, I know, is meant to be broadening. It’s often unsettling, too. I can’t wait to return home.
Not so fast. My plane is delayed: a fitting coda to my brief stay in South Florida.
Many moons ago, while a graduate student, I first came across references to the alleged cultural impoverishment of the Jews whose languages, it was said, lacked a vocabulary of botanical terms.
That notion has stayed with me ever since. Most recently, it piqued my interest in attending “Songs of Sacred Time,” a concert of Jewish music at Manhattan’s JCC to mark Tu B’Shevat, “Jewish Arbor Day,” the “New Year of the Trees.” I didn’t expect much.
Boy, was I proven wrong. Wide-ranging in subject and in musicality, the songs presented at this concert were drawn from Yiddish and Ladino, Hebrew and Arabic and spanned the centuries as well as the globe. Some took the form of lively, upbeat folk songs, others were far more rueful, contemplative, even yearning.
Every one was performed with exquisite skill and sensitivity by the singers — Hazzan Ayelet Porzecanski, Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer and Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon — and the musicians — Daniel Ori on bass, Uri Sharlin on accordion, Shane Shanahan on percussion. Under the skillful music direction of guitarist Dan Nadel, chestnuts such as Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “It Might As Well Be Spring,” and Naomi Shemer’s “Horshat HaEkaliptus,” came vividly to life, while little-known treasures from Afghanistan and Libya, among them “Shochanet BaSadeh,” held us rapt.
Mesmerizing and heartening in equal measure, “Songs of Sacred Time” highlighted the richness and variety of Jewish musical expression. What’s more, the sight of a young generation of artists in thrall to its textures and rhythms was marvelous to behold. To all those doomsayers out there, to all those who insist that contemporary Jewish life is on the decline, look again. And listen.
Jewish culture is in full flower.
Much of my winter break, or what used to be called “intersession,” was taken up with work: fine-tuning a manuscript, fiddling with footnotes (yes, that again), preparing for the new term and with it, a brand new graduate seminar on Jewish musical expression and sound.
Now and again, I surfaced to see a movie as well as some dance, treated myself to a leisurely, boozy lunch or two and even kicked up my heels at a friend’s son’s wedding.
While all of these activities were immensely satisfying, gratifying the senses and the soul, they were not the highpoint of the holiday season. That distinction belonged to a poetry reading.
Braving the elements as well as the vagaries of the NYC subway system which, on the night in question, had all but ground to a halt, I ventured downtown last week to hear my friend, Ben Kukoff, read from his recently published collection of poems, What This Country Needs.
I knew, of course, that Ben (a.k.a. ‘Bernie’) was a man of parts, with a very successful and varied career in television, theater and film. I knew, too, that he was a compelling story-teller, having invited him to my class on several occasions, where he handily won over the students, the toughest of audiences.
What I didn’t know, and what bowled me over, was his way with words. At once economical and shapely, rueful and hard-hitting, Ben’s poems go straight to the very heart of things: to the vexed relationship between fathers and sons, the indignities of aging, the intractability of nature and of history, especially American Jewish history.
Each poem is alive on the page and requires little by way of intervention. Still, it was a real treat to hear Ben give them voice, his wry line readings inflecting this word and that with just the right amount of oomph or restraint.
A push here, a gentle nudge there — and Ben’s words summoned up a universe. I don’t mean to fawn — that’s not my m.o. — but this poetry reading was one for the books. It sent me out into the cold, and unto the new semester, invigorated and renewed.
I was casting about for an appropriate topic for my end-of-the-year blog. Since everyone, from The New York Times on down, was busily engaged in compiling a list of 2015’s most memorable moments, its highs and lows, I thought I’d follow suit — but with a twist: I’d take stock of this year’s most memorable academic moments. Perhaps, just perhaps, something approximating a pattern, or, better yet, a theme might emerge, endowing this exercise — much less 2015 — with an internal unity, even a degree of symmetry.
What if I were to summon up some of the more arcane administrative forms that had to be filed and re-filed over the course of the year, or recall the buzzwords, those equally arcane phrases, that filled the air at faculty meetings and conferences? Maybe recounting the grammatical gaffes and fatal mis-spellings committed by my students as well as chronicling my own mis-steps in the classroom might yield a profitable insight or two?
Just as I was about to compile my list, a brand-new production of Fiddler on the Roof debuted on Broadway, and to glowing reviews. Before I could say “Tradition,” I found my subject. Good-bye to my top ten; hello, once again, to this evergreen of Broadway musicals.
Between last year and this one, we’ve studied Fiddler in class, tracked its provenance and explored every nook and cranny of its production history to the point where we seemed to have exhausted every conceivable angle.
Not quite; there’s more. That the new production takes place within the context of an international refugee crisis freighted this tale of dislocation with even greater plangency.
Its ongoing resonance extended beyond the Great White Way. In honor of the play’s revival, a prominent synagogue in New York actually integrated Fiddler’s lyrical “Sabbath Prayer” into a Friday evening service, where it was sung full-throttle by not one but two cantors.
Now that’s what I call symmetry — and a fitting conclusion to the year.
In the weeks leading up to Hanukkah, my inbox was filled with multiple invitations from a diverse array of journalists to talk about the holiday. A writer for The Atlantic wanted to know more about Hanukkah’s history in America; a reporter for Time plied me with questions about contemporary practice, while her counterpart at the Wall Street Journal, appropriately enough, zeroed in on Hanukkah gelt.
Much as I appreciate, and am even flattered by, the burst of interest in my perspective — after all, the last time I experienced such a show of popularity was back in 10th grade — I’m curious about the media’s attentiveness. Surely, it’s not for want of other newsworthy stories; we’re hardly experiencing a slow news cycle. What’s more, near as I can tell, there are no new and startling developments in the way in which American Jews mark the holiday, apart, say, from substituting crème fraiche for sour cream atop potato latkes. This latest dollop of culinary innovation may have the traditionalists among us all riled up, but it hardly qualifies as journalistic fodder. What, then, might account for the current expression of interest in the Festival of Lights?
I suspect it has something to do with persistence. Though of ancient vintage, Hanukkah hasn’t bit the dust, as have so many other equally hoary festivals. Instead, it keeps chugging along, accruing new meanings and new practices along the way, especially in the United States where a host of factors over time — consumerism, the rise of the State of Israel and intermarriage, among them — have endowed the holiday with a new lease on life.
In the 1920s, the availability of new foodstuffs such as Crisco allied “latkes and modern science,” contemporizing the traditional tuber dish. In the immediate postwar era, American Jews increasingly associated the ancient Maccabees with modern-day Israeli soldiers, heightening Hanukkah’s relevance. Today, intermarried families make a point of celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas, extending its reach and giving rise to a new genre of humorous greeting card that takes the sting out of the so-called “December dilemma.”
An exercise in adaptation, Hanukkah has stayed the course — which, come to think of it, might well explain its appeal to the Fourth Estate. At a time of wholesale and rapid change, the holiday’s endurance is something to write about.
Spin on, Hanukkah!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.