Skip to content
Jan 31 16

In full flower

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.

Eucalytus tree

Eucalytus tree. Flickr/Gilbert Mercier

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.

Jan 10 16

Sound effects

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.

What this Country Needs by Benjamin Kukoff

Source: Amazon

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.

Dec 27 15

Year end

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.

Original Fiddler on the Roof Broadway window card

Original Fiddler on the Roof Broadway window card/Wikipedia

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.

Dec 7 15

Bright spot

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.

Hanukkah lights

Hanukkah lights. Flickr/Tim Sackton

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!

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

Integration

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

Greetings

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

Piecemeal

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.