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Jun 27 16

Summer school

I just spent the past week in summer school. A just punishment for my sins, you might think. As it happened, the experience was anything but punishing. Though the loveliest of June days beckoned outside while a raging sinus infection had me reaching for a tissue every ten minutes, summer school turned out to be a real delight.


Philadelphia is home to Robert Indiana’s celebrated sculpture. Flickr/vic15

Convened by Penn’s Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies in conjunction with The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it brought together twenty graduate students and faculty from Europe, Israel and the United States to think through some of the complex issues in Jewish history and thought.

Manifestly, the theme of the week was “Shaking Foundations,” but the joys and challenges of interdisciplinary exchange lay at the heart of our collective inquiry as we explored a welter of sources from the Talmud and Levinas to medieval stories and early modern communal documents. The U.S. Constitution as well the Ten Commandments also came vividly into play, as did the demographics of postwar Poland and the latest anthropological theories about the relationship between researchers and their subjects.

Now and again we left the building — to go on a walking tour of downtown Philadelphia, to visit a museum or two, to grab a snack (burnt sugar gelato, anyone?) from the many enticing eateries that have sprung up of late.

Most of the time, though, we sat around a large table. What was striking about this wasn’t so much our sedentary ways as it was the absence of hierarchy. Instead of occupying the head of the table, as is their wont, the chaired professors among us sat cheek by jowl with graduate students, their seasoned voices mingling freely with those of an emerging generation of scholars.

The symbolic power of the table was just as palpable. At a time when Judaic Studies and those who cherish it are increasingly marginalized and even demonized by the academy, taking one’s place at the table was a gesture of solidarity. The table both protected and validated those who sat around it.

“Shaking Foundations” turned out to be an exercise in restoration.

Jun 8 16


Building a new academic program ain’t easy. There are forms to fill out, deans to convince, donors to cultivate and students to recruit. The number of hoops you have to jump through before you get off the ground, much less succeed, can daunt and discourage even the most energetic and determined of souls.

What lifts the spirit and sustains it is the opportunity to try one’s hand at something novel: to stretch. It’s not quite the same thing as seizing the brass ring, but it comes awfully close. For me, that opportunity took the form of SymPop.

Inspired by the contemporary pop-up phenomenon as well as by the age-old notion of a symposium, I hit on the idea of mixing up both by bringing together a highly select (dare I say ‘curated,’ the word du jour) assemblage of artists and educators to spend an immersive 24 hours in one another’s company. We would eat together, cook together, learn from one another and collaborate — all with an eye towards enriching one another as well as the Jewish communal landscape.

So many ideas sound marvelous on paper, but land with a thud when it comes to actualizing them. Not SymPop. Thanks to its participants, who were generous, open, spirited and, above all, game, what might have been yet another dutiful exercise in professional development took flight. Deploying all manner of stuff — paper, scissors, smartphones, musical instruments, images, grids, flowers, their feet, pots & pans — as well as one another, they buzzed with ideas, infusing Jewish texts, practices, places, foodways and sounds with newfound sparkle and depth.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the SymPopniks had to say when asked to come up with a slew of adjectives and nouns to describe their experience. First the adjectives: “Awesome, inspiring, thoughtful, fun, satisfying.” Now, the nouns: “sharing, connections, sprouting, whole-making, gratitude, trust.”

May 30 16

Shop talk

If all you knew about education came from what you read in the New York Times, you’d be right to think it’s in a sorry state, indeed. But if you had the good fortune to spend time in the company of committed educators, you’d come away with an entirely different perspective — not rosy-eyed, exactly, but upbeat and enthusiastic, all the same.

I’ve just returned from Brandeis, where the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education assembled a diverse mix of professionals to explore how best to approach the teaching of history — Jewish history especially. Some of us teach or conduct research, others experiment with digital forms of exchange and still others work in museums. What binds us together is our shared fidelity to the enterprise of education and with it, the value of thinking historically.

That’s not to say that differences didn’t emerge. On the heels of screening “Raise the Roof,” a marvelous, inspiring film about the making of the wooden synagogue that now takes center stage at Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, I, for one, got into a lively (read: heated) discussion with one of colleagues. He felt that the project’s participants did not come away with a sufficient understanding of the larger context of Polish-Jewish relations, rendering the undertaking of limited utility. My point, in turn, was that if ever there was an educational opportunity to translate history into an immediate, powerful experience, this was it. Knowledge wasn’t the point so much as sensitivity. Neither one convinced the other, but we had a good time trying.

In the course of our deliberations or “convening,” as the lingo would have it, attendees looked at the ways in which gaming, material culture, theater and the pursuit of heroes might advance the study of the Jewish past. The air was thick with collegial exchange.

We’ll have to wait and see what big-ticket conclusions, if any, will be drawn. In the meantime, it’s heartening to know that fresh ideas await.

May 8 16

Dinner party

When was the last time you attended an honest-to-goodness dinner party? You know, the kind of get-together that takes place in the middle of the week and is untethered to religious ritual, the kind of occasion where the conversation flows as freely as the wine.

Dinner Table

Dinner table. Flickr/David Duran

Years ago, dinner parties were the coin of the academic realm, the domain of that special breed of spouse known as the faculty wife. Once she vanished from the scene, the dinner party vanished along with her.

I didn’t realize how much I missed that social institution, that exercise in collegiality, until I attended one just last week. What rendered it a special occasion wasn’t just its novelty, but the circumstances under which it was held. This dinner party was organized and hosted by one of my students, Elizabeth Livesey, to mark the culmination, the capstone, of her two years of training in GW’s MA in Jewish Cultural Arts.

We encourage the students in the program to think inventively about the relationship between content and creativity: to infuse Jewish cultural programming with substance and, concomitantly to enlarge the possibilities for smart, critical and layered engagement with Jewish culture and history.

Ms. Livesey’s “curated dinner,” as she called it, did exactly that. An homage to, as well as a re-enactment of, the salon of the 19th century, it assembled a lively mix of people — historians, curators and other museum professionals among them — to think through the interpretive implications of remounting an infamous 1941 exhibition, Le Juif et la France, in which the Jews of that country were demonized.

Ms. Livesey not only fed our hunger for French wine and food, which we quaffed and consumed in abundance. She also nourished our appetite for intellectual exchange: talk was as plentiful as the dishes on the beautifully appointed, candlelit table.

A resounding success in every which way, a true capstone experience, this “curated dinner” attested both to Elizabeth Livesey’s many, many gifts and to what educators like to call ‘proof of concept.’

When we furnish our students with the right set of tools and sensibilities, encouraging their creative use, boy, can they take flight!

Apr 17 16

The beat goes on…

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.

Drums. Flickr/Jens Bergander

Drums. Flickr/Jens Bergander

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.

Apr 3 16

Van Gogh’s bedroom and Sara Berman’s closet

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.

Van Gogh's bedroom. Source/Art Institute of Chicago

Van Gogh’s bedroom. Source/Art Institute of Chicago

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.

Mar 1 16

Road trip

“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.

Welcome to Boca Raton

Welcome to Boca. Flickr/elpintobeans

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.

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.