Skip to content
Dec 16 14

The printed word

As the semester draws to a close, I’m prompted to reflect on some of its highlights, from a lively cooking class with food writer Leah Koenig to an affecting performance, at the Arena Stage, of Fiddler on the Roof.

 Middle East Librarians Association GW

Middle East Librarians Association display/GW

Though profoundly satisfying, both experiences were trumped by an unexpectedly moving encounter in the library: The Kiev Collection’s display of “Hebrew Printing in the Arab and Islamic World.” Assembled by its knowledgeable and sage curator, Brad Sabin Hill, and timed to coincide with the annual meeting of the Middle East Librarians Association, this assortment of 30-odd books touched me to my very core.

I’m not sure why. Surely, it wasn’t their subject matter, which ranged from grammatical commentaries on the Bible to a liturgy for mourners. Nor was it a matter of their visual properties, for virtually all of the books on display bore little by way of illustration. And it certainly wasn’t the simple, honest and direct manner in which they were exhibited, row upon row on a wood table. No bells and whistles, no pyrotechnics, dazzled, or distracted, the eye.

But dazzled I was, all the same. Perhaps it had to do with their geographical origins, which spanned Istanbul and Beirut, Tunis and Salonika, Alexandria and Aden — places which the Jews once called home, but are no more. Then again, maybe it had to do with the ways in which these humble texts managed, somehow, to survive the vicissitudes of Jewish history and to come to rest in Washington, D.C.

Whatever the reason, I left the inviting precincts of the Kiev Collection heartened — and haunted — by the presence of these books and the stories they carry.

Nov 25 14

Crossroads

Last week, I was quite literally on the road, travelling on trains, planes and buses. No matter the destination — New York; D.C.; College Park, Maryland; and Cincinnati, Ohio — the conversation at hand had to do with the future of Judaic Studies. At the risk of sounding like the doomsayers who find their worst fears confirmed by the Pew Center study on contemporary Jewish life, I’ve come away from my wanderings rather concerned about the ongoing vitality of Judaic Studies. The field is currently celebrating, or about to mark, its 40th birthday on many a college campus, amidst dwindling enrollments and exceedingly anxious university administrators who measure success, or viability, solely in terms of metrics.

Thomas Guignard At the crossroads

“At the crossroads.” Flickr/Thomas Guignard

For all its maturity, Judaic Studies is a veritable start-up, especially when compared with other longstanding disciplines in the humanities such as History, English or even Semitics. Along the way, it has experienced more than its fair share of growing pains. Some have to do with the circumstances under which the field is constituted, others with the nature of the academic economy, much less the vagaries of the marketplace, and still others with the vexing matter of its intellectual utility.

University deans decide whether Judaic Studies ought to be administered as a program or as a department, a seemingly insignificant semantic decision whose implications run deep; donors, in turn, provide the financial incentive to set things in motion. The faculty, meanwhile, answers not only to these two constituencies, but to its colleagues as well, many of whom, even forty years on, are still not persuaded that Judaic Studies is a legitimate academic enterprise, with its own distinctive methodologies, body of practices and conceptual concerns.

There’s not too much we can do about university administrators, donors or the economy. But, as Judaic Studies approaches its next forty years, perhaps we could do something about our presence on the academic landscape. Much as I’d prefer to think otherwise, we who traffic in Judaic Studies inhabit an intellectual ghetto, whose gates we zealously monitor. Privileging the mastery of traditional Jewish texts at the expense of other kinds of sources and clinging tightly, stubbornly, to a static and internal hierarchy of interpretive values, we have not always been the most welcoming of neighbors.

Before the next significant birthday rolls around, here’s hoping we can do better.

Nov 9 14

‘Tis the season

Now that the Jewish holidays have come and gone, it’s time to start thinking about what lies ahead. In the event that graduate school is in your future — or that of someone you know — I hope you might give some thought to enrolling in an exciting new program at GW: the M.A. in Jewish Cultural Arts.

Master of Arts in Jewish Cultural Arts


You’ll forgive me for sounding like a proud parent, or, worse still, like a shameless self-promoter, when I sing the praises of this enterprise, now in its second year. It’s the real deal. Taking advantage of everything that D.C. has to offer — smart and savvy people, gratifying internships and culture, culture, culture just about everywhere you turn — the M.A. in Jewish Cultural Arts makes learning both fun and meaningful. Better yet, the program sees to it that its students shine.

Who can ask for anything more?

Send us your sons and daughters, your grandchildren, your nieces and nephews as well as your neighbor’s kids.

Great opportunities await!

Oct 18 14

Mystic chords

The other evening, I attended a concert that had as much to do with movement as with listening. I found it hard to stay in my seat — and I was hardly the only one. The performance featured Zach Fredman and the Epichorus Big Band as well as Dan Nadel and Musicians, two groups whose musical intelligence enlivens and invigorates the contemporary Jewish music scene.

Oud

Oud. Flickr/Juan Eduardo Sara Zaror

Drawing on a mix of spoken and musical sounds, on western instruments like the violin and on eastern ones like the oud and the riq; on improvisation and form, on flamenco and piyut (yes, you read that correctly); on contemporary renderings of age-old melodies, the two groups offered a musical experience that was nothing if not layered: at once an exercise in cultural reclamation and re-interpretation.

The setting in which the concert took place was itself a study in layering. I can’t imagine a more perfect venue in which to receive and absorb this music that the sanctuary of B’nai Jeshurun, a riot of color and decorative motif that ought not to hang together, but which does in ways that make our current fondness for minimalism look utterly misplaced. The sanctuary, which dates to the 1920s, reflects an Art Deco vision of Moorish architecture — smack in the middle of Manhattan.

Recently, the New York Times discussed the difficulties faced by the contemporary orchestra, from a diminishing base of subscribers to latter-day listening practices, which are somewhat at odds with the protocols of the traditional concert hall.

Given the immersive, engaging musical experience I enjoyed the other evening, I can’t help wondering whether that kind of concert might be just the ticket.

Oct 1 14

The voice

During the 10-day period that spans Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, it’s customary to attend to your soul, contemplate your shortcomings, and resolve to do better. Some of the rabbis I know call this “spiritual work.”

Yentl Theater J

Yentl. Source: Theater J

Mine took the form of going to the theater with a number of my graduate students in tow. Appropriately enough, the play we went to see was Theater J’s absorbing new production of Yentl.

This version of the I.B. Singer short story Yentl, der yeshive-bokher, places sexual ambiguity, or “spiritual androgyny,” as the title character puts it right at the getgo, at its core. Earlier versions, especially the 1980s Barbra Streisand vehicle, placed a premium on feminism, on yearnings that had more to do with the intellect than the body.

What struck me as I compared the merits of both productions wasn’t so much the realization that each generation fashions a Yentl that speaks most directly to its singular set of concerns. What struck me most forcefully was the power of the voice or, more to the point, the power of multiple voices, joined together in song and conversation.

From listening to the performers sing and act to engaging in lively discussion about the play with my students the very next morning, I came away heartened, even energized, by the possibilities that lie in store for those fortunate enough to use our voices in song, speech and prayer.

Sep 14 14

Fashionisti

Those who know me might be surprised to learn that years ago, when I was a high school student at the Yeshivah of Flatbush — and a very good student, at that — I was sent to the principal’s office and promptly suspended from school. My grievous offense: the length of my skirt. The powers that be insisted it was way too short. Since I lived quite a distance from school, I had to spend the better part of the day cooling my heels and covering my knees in the secretary’s office until the private bus that, day in and day out, transported a small group of us back to our Long Island homes was ready to board.

Alice Hahn Machol, c. 1935.

Alice Hahn Machol, c. 1935.

For years, I’ve dined out on that story, a source of considerable bemusement. But it’s no longer a laughing matter. Just the other day I learned that the practice of singling out young women for their allegedly immodest and provocative clothing, for their breach of tzinut (or modesty), continues apace at my alma mater.

Recently, things had gotten so out of hand that a female student named Melissa Duchan wrote to the administration expressing her dismay. “Every school should have clear priorities; in ours, trivial concerns like a few inches of fabric have superseded more important aspects of the school environment like integrity and respect for others,” she related. In short order, Duchan’s comments fired up the blogosphere, generating quite a heated conversation about modesty, gender and sartorial norms. I wish that conversation had taken place in my day.

On a happier note, I also came across a much more positive fashion-related story this past week: the discovery of an interwar clothing atelier on Madison Avenue run by and catering to affluent German Jewish women. The genteel emporium, where money rarely exchanged hands and clothes were shipped in a green box decorated with daisies, was known as Filer-Machol after its two proprietors, Alice Hahn Machol and Edith Filer.

I was reviewing the manuscript of an historical novel that takes place in New York of the 1940s and happened across a reference to the shop. Having never heard of it before, I queried this detail and, in response, was directed to a lovely piece in the Journal of New York Folklore that discussed its history.

This revelation was a much welcome tonic, a counter-narrative, to the grim goings-on at the Yeshivah of Flatbush. It lifted my spirits where the latter story set them crashing.

Sep 1 14

Bake sale

This past week brought word of the closing of two American Jewish institutions: Entenmann’s, the producer of all kinds of baked goods, and KlezKamp, the producer of yidishkayt in all of its varied manifestations. After more than 100 years on Long Island, the Entenmann’s plant will shut its doors and, if company press releases are to be believed, relocate elsewhere. KlezKamp, a much younger phenomenon — it will have been around for 30 years — will be calling it a day at the conclusion of its final session, in late December.

Entenmann's truck, Totowa, NJ

Entenmann’s Delivery Truck, NJ. Flickr/erlyrizrjr

Thanks to its kosher certification, Entenmann’s went on to become a staple in many traditional American Jewish households, its doughnuts and crumb cakes a fixture of the synagogue kiddush as well. I never cared much for them. To me, they tasted too much of the chemical preservatives whose names (thiamine mononitrate and riboflavin) were dutifully listed on the outside of the blue and white box with the cellophane window. But I know hundreds of people, including the members of my extended family, who not only relished their Entenmann’s, but also made a point of incorporating its consumption into their Shabbat morning ritual: a source of fortification before heading out for shuel.

In other American Jewish households, most famously that of Shalom Auslander’s, the Entenmann box served as a distraction. In his celebrated memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, Auslander writes of having run through all of the reading material he had assembled for Shabbat. “By Saturday afternoon I was slumped over the kitchen table, reading the side of the Entenmann’s doughnut box for the ten thousandth time. The history of Entenmann’s, the price per pound of Entenmann’s, the ingredients of Entenmann’s; I knew more about Entenmann’s doughnuts than most of the Entenmanns themselves.”

KlezKamp, too, deserves to be celebrated and chronicled in print. The brainchild of Henry Sapoznik, one of the founding fathers of the klezmer revival movement, it brought together for one week and under the roof of a down-at-its-heels Catskills hotel the most widely variegated community of Jews I’ve ever encountered. What bound everyone together was a shared fidelity to Yiddish and the cultural milieu from which it emerged.

The accommodations left a lot to be desired and the food was nothing to write home about — a box of Entenmann’s doughnuts would have been like manna — but these physical limitations were more than offset by the sheer, unadulterated exuberance of the experience. I’ve yet to find anything else like it. Teaching in the morning, attending someone else’s classes on language, song or cooking in the afternoon, jamming at night and dancing, dancing, dancing until the very wee hours of the morning — KlezKamp epitomized Jewish experiential education at its very best.

I, along with hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of its fans, will greatly mourn its passing. I know I speak for the community of KlezKampers when I say that we are exceedingly grateful to Henry and his dedicated team for nourishing our spirits, fortifying our souls and enabling us to experience firsthand the joys of Yiddish.

Aug 17 14

Exposure

This past week I took a break from writing to spend time with aspiring fashion designers, experienced garment manufacturers, talented make-up artists and successful shtreimel-makhers. Lest you think I’ve gone off the deep end or, at the very least, am contemplating a radical career change, worry not. My keeping company with these folks was an extension of my long-time interest in the relationship between fashion and Jewishness rather than an abrupt departure from it.

mannequins

Dress forms in a classroom at FIT. Flickr/Lill

Under the welcoming aegis of Tent: Encounters with Jewish Culture, a number of Jewish twenty-somethings with a keen interest in fashion came together in Montreal to explore the professional and communal ties that bind them.

I was on hand to provide perspective and context (a k a history). I posed questions, prepared readings, moderated several panels, tied up loose ends and “debriefed” at day’s close. The idea throughout was to engage the participants, or “the group,” as they preferred to be called, in thinking imaginatively and critically about the interaction between the two distinctive cultural systems of fashion and Jewishness, one of which is predicated on novelty and the other on constancy.

Exposure was the name of the game. Exposure, that is, to the vagaries of the marketplace and the dislocations of history, to Moses and Dame Fashion, to Mitchie’s Matchings and Annie Young Cosmetics. A steady parade of people passed before us, sharing their stories, many of which had to do with both success and setbacks, with triumph as well as loss.

It’s hard to tell how deeply these themes registered with the group, some of whom seemed far more interested in their smartphone than in their surroundings. But one thing clearly emerged: When it comes to fashion, there’s a lot more than meets the eye.

Jul 28 14

Sound waves

This past week, I thought a lot about sound. My aural consciousness was aroused, in part, by what’s currently going on in Israel and Gaza. As sirens wailed and missiles hit their targets, it was hard to concentrate on much of anything apart from the sounds of war.

Bells

Bells. Flickr/Lorenzoclick

But then, that wasn’t the only thing that got me thinking about soundscapes. The recent publication by Yale University Press of Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Religion, a handsomely produced volume of essays edited by the redoubtable Sally Promey of Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music, also put me in mind of the centrality of sound in our lives, especially when it comes to the practice of faith.

This book, much like A History of Religion in 5 1⁄2 Objects, which I reviewed for The New Republic a few months ago, makes the claim, convincingly, that religion is as grounded in the sensory — in sound and smell, visuality and tactility — as it is in grand abstractions about sin, heaven and the prospect of deliverance.

Its tantalizingly brief section on what Promey smartly calls “audible religion” suggests the plasticity of the approach she and the other contributors to this volume roundly endorse. Religious pluralism, it turns out, isn’t just a matter of making room for others at the table. It also takes the form of exploring how some American municipalities accommodated the Muslim summons to prayer and how one Christian seminary reckoned with an art installation, whose use of Hindu ritual bells intruded on the rhythms of the day.

The week drew to a close harmoniously, and soothingly, with a ceremony honoring Laura Cohen Apelbaum for her 20 years of service as director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. The program was held within the intimate precincts of its late 19th century red brick building, formerly a synagogue, now located at 3rd and G in downtown D.C. Although I’ve had the good fortune to visit any number of times, its pews were usually empty of people. This time around, they were filled to capacity.

The presence of people and the sounds they projected, especially when, at the ceremony’s conclusion, everyone enthusiastically joined together to offer a prayer of thanksgiving — in Hebrew — gave shape, texture and meaning to the Society’s efforts at historical reconstruction and preservation. Enlivened by sound, an historic space that once housed a congregation was no longer a mute witness to the past. It had come alive.

Jul 13 14

Power to the people

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.

Contemporary Jewish Museum

Contemporary Jewish Museum/Menachem Wecker

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.