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Presence

by Jenna Weissman Joselit on March 12th, 2017

Back in the day when I was a high school student at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, the teachers of Judaic subjects such as Bible, Hebrew literature and Jewish history took attendance. They would call out a name and the person attached to it would respond — or not.

Set in Stone America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments

Introduction to Jenna’s website, designed by Erik Mace.

What rendered this rather ordinary practice somewhat unusual was the variety of responses to it. A simple, unreflective answer would simply not do. A competitive bunch in this and everything else, we vied with one another as to the most creative or humorous reply. Some of us stood up when our names were called; others acknowledged the teacher’s authority with a flourish of the hand. Still others stayed in their seats, their hands at their side, and either bellowed or whispered a world-weary “yes.” A number of my classmates who liked the sound of their names repeated them. A few of us, myself included, preferred the directness of the Hebrew expression: “po,” we would say. “Here.”

At the time, I thought the use of “po” was not only strategic, but amusing, too. Such a tiny word — more of a sound than a concept — struck me as funny. Though my particular brand of adolescent humor has long since disappeared along with my youth, I still find “po” funny — or, perhaps more to the point, endearing. Although I was hardly mindful of it when in high school, there’s an innocence, a sweetness, to the manner in which the word registers presence.

I’ve been given to thinking about my “po” days as I launch a brand new website to mark the imminent release of my new book, Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments. Working closely with the imaginative and witty, thoughtful and oh-so patient web designer, Erik Mace, I conjured up a digital presence for myself. A complicated bit of business, an exercise in self reflection if ever there was one, it called on me to do a lot more than simply answer “po.”

These days, when someone wants to know if I’m in the room, I respond: www.jennajoselit.com.

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