The Arty Semite

George Washington To Launch New Jewish Arts Program

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Jenna Weissman Joselit

Hot on the heels of a new graduate program in Jewish Cultural Arts, George Washington University has announced an additional new MA program in Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts. Whereas the first program focuses more on arts administration and museum management, the second is meant to train educators for professional roles in today’s broad and varied Jewish cultural landscape.

The program in Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts, the first of its kind in the U.S., is set to begin this coming summer thanks to a $1.47 million grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation. It will offer an interdisciplinary curriculum of coursework from the university’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development’s Museum Education Program and the Columbian College’s program in Judaic studies.

Professor Jenna Weissman Joselit, who directs the Jewish Culture Arts graduate program and will co-direct the new experiential education one, told The Arty Semite that GWU is breaking new ground. “Academic programs in Jewish art already exist, but they are more geared toward connoisseurship and the curatorial. Our programs are more about advancing Jewish cultural arts programmatically, educationally and administratively,” she said.

Joselit and her colleagues are casting a wide net in terms of seeking students for these new programs. “There are a lot of people out there interested in this field, but they don’t know Jewish culture. And the opposite is true,” she pointed out.

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Home for the Holidays

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Flickr/Avital Pinnick

“There’s more?!” exclaimed a colleague rather incredulously upon learning that I was going to be out of the office for the third time in as many weeks because of the chagim, the Jewish holidays.

She didn’t know the half of it.

Though they make a hash of my schedule and mincemeat of my workload, the chagim serve as a much welcome respite — a cocoon — from the demands of the workaday world. They also serve as a marvelous opportunity for people-watching and observing the human condition.

Yes, I know the holidays are supposed to be about the pursuit of higher, loftier goals, from addressing one’s shortcomings to communing with a higher authority. And they are. But now and then, a determinedly human detail — an incongruity — surfaces, which adds considerably to the occasion.

Here are a few moments that caught my eye and struck my fancy:

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High Holy Days vs. Fashion Week

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Flickr/Saaleha Bamjee

It so happened this year that Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, coincided with New York’s Fashion Week, prompting some eagle-eyed observers to trumpet the possibility of a showdown between the “shofar and the shows,” a clash between the “Goddess of Fashion” and the God of the patriarchs and matriarchs.

That didn’t happen, of course. For the most part, those participants who were directly affected by the calendrical conflict made their peace with it. Some stayed away from the runway, others adjusted their schedules and still others clucked their tongues in dismay.

What no one did, near as I can tell, was launch a public protest. What a missed opportunity! Way back in May, when Fashion Week’s schedule was first announced, its sponsors issued the following, rather tepid, statement:

The CFDA greatly respects and understands the importance of this holiday but, given the international calendar of European shows directly after New York, we do not have the option to shift the dates later. We realize that the observance of the holiday will impact some in their ability to attend or present shows — but we are asking that everyone please work with us to make this situation work as best as possible.

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Brick by Brick

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Brickmakers, Blists Hill Victorian Town, Ironbridge Gorge Museums, England. Flickr/Leo Reynolds

Late one evening, unable to sleep, I was channel surfing when I happened on a documentary about Hudson River bricks. Lest you think, as I did at first, that the subject would put me to sleep in no time at all, I found myself utterly engrossed — and wide awake.

The documentary, “Hudson River Brick Makers,” looks at an industry that once animated the Hudson River Valley, gainfully employing thousands of workers, many of them immigrants, and transforming any number of sleepy river towns into lively commercial centers. Who knew?

But that wasn’t the only revelation in store. What made the history of the Hudson River brick industry especially fascinating was that its products were destined for New York City. As it turned out, the rise and fall of the Hudson River Valley was tied up with the literal rise of the Empire City, whose face was lined with bricks. When, as a result of changing tastes and the advent of new technologies, the demand for this building material faded, so, too, did the fortunes of its manufacturers, distributors and everyone else involved in its creation and circulation.

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Down the Rabbit Hole of Academia

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Wikimedia Commons

By now, I don’t suppose there are many people in the world who would liken the groves of academe to an earthly paradise. Too much has been written of late about tensions between faculty and university administrators, student ennui and diminishing resources, to hold up the academic enterprise as a paragon of civility.

The steady advance of hybrid courses and of MOOCs (massive online open courses) has compounded matters even more. From coast to coast, discussions about their integration into the curriculum have become increasingly heated, throwing just about everyone — their advocates, their detractors and those in the middle — into a tizzy. You need only pick up an issue — any issue — of The Chronicle of Higher Education or, for that matter, The New York Times, to see the extent to which tempers have frayed.

Fear of change and the prospect of an uncertain future fuel much of this. But so, too, does the very nature of academic life where, all too often, petty politics rules the roost and decidedly uncollegial behavior is the coin of the realm.

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Jewish Sports Is Not an Oxymoron

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Courtesy Maccabi USA

I try to follow and keep abreast of a lot of things: the news, for starters, as well as fashion and film and arts and culture. But I give baseball and basketball, much less soccer, a pass. You will rarely, if ever, catch me reading the sports section of the New York Times.

This week, though, I found myself riveted by an article about a contemporary British 10th level soccer team, the London Maccabi Lions, which appeared in Sunday’s paper. Their jerseys festooned with a Star of David, all of the players, it turns out, are Jewish. It’s a team requirement.

Jewish sports organizations are nothing new, of course. Prewar Poland, for instance, abounded in Jewish gymnastic groups and clubs that sported the name Maccabee in homage to the physical bravura of the ancient Hasmoneans. One branch of the Maccabees took to skiing, another to motorcycle racing, while the young men of Bialystok, resplendent and confident in white shorts and boldly striped jerseys, struck an insouciant pose in a 1926 photograph that can be found in the illustrated book, “Image Before My Eyes.”

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How Clothes Make Us Modern

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

One of the most exciting — certainly among the most crowded — of exhibitions in New York at the moment is the Met’s “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity.” And for good reason. Training its sights on the triangulated relationship among these three mighty cultural forces of the late 19th century, the exhibition opens our eyes to what makes us truly modern: our clothes.

As visitors in casual attire take in the somber black suits, oversized cashmere shawls, dainty shoes, upstanding hats, ever-so-tight bodices and enormous bustles that inhabit this exhibition both visually and artifactually, they’re hard pressed at first to associate them with modernity. Exercises in modulation and constraint, these articles of dress seen anything but modern.

Thanks, though, to the smart and allusive writing on the wall and to the canny juxtapositions between painting and object, which echo and reverberate, we come away with an entirely fresh perspective on late 19th-century dress and, more broadly still, on why clothing matters as much as it does. As Anatole France put it, “If I were permitted to choose amidst the jumble of books that will be published a hundred years after my death, do you know which one I would pick? … A fashion magazine in order to see how women will dress a century after my passing. And these rags would tell me more about humanity’s future than philosophers, novelists, preachers, or scholars.”

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Pesach Extends Its Shelf Life

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

What’s striking about the holiday of Pesach isn’t its historicity so much as its contemporaneity. There, I’ve said it.

You would think that I would be most quick to praise the festival’s biblical origins, the ninth-century roots of the haggadah, or, at the very least, great grandma’s Depression-era dishes.

While there’s much to be said for each one of these historical phenomena, what really hits home is how the repertoire of Pesach-related objects, activities, and foodstuffs grows and grows and grows.

Several years ago, Moses action figures capable of “articulating” their joints in 16 different directions took pride of place at the holiday table. “This pint sized hero can bring a miraculous new level of excitement to your Seder,” gushed advertisements, suggesting that this most agile of biblical heroes would make for a very good guest, indeed.

Last year, the “New American Haggadah” was all the rage. Panned or praised, it was the talk of the town. Virtually everyone I knew had one.

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Hasidic and In Style

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

This past week New York had its knickers in a twist when fashion designer John Galliano was spotted wearing an ensemble and sporting a hairdo that, at first blush, summoned up the external appearance of the Hasidim: oversized black hat, long black frockcoat, black knickers and payes.

Some cried ‘foul,’ insisting that Galliano’s get-up was a deliberate affront to the Jews, the designer’s latest expression of malice and maliciousness. Others were equally insistent that Galliano was simply being, well, Galliano, and that his attire was just an expression of his idiosyncratic style. And still others, conceding that Galliano’s clothing was, in fact, “Hasidic-ish,” castigated the designer for being “tone deaf” and “impolitic.”

This latest fashion flap puts me in mind of an earlier, and equally provocative, moment in fashion history: Jean Paul Gaultier’s so-called “Hasidic Collection” of 1993 in which models strutted down the runway in clothing and hats that bore a rather close resemblance to that typically worn by male Hasidim.

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Bezalel Graduates Hold Their Own

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Gil Nahmany. Femme Fractal (2011)

Over the next few weeks, those seeking respite from the clamor of talking heads should make a beeline for the Corcoran College of Art + Design where the work of recent graduates of Israel’s storied Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design is on display.

The exhibition will take your breath away, especially if your idea of Israeli art and craft is that of olive wood plaques and patinated greenware. Holding its own — and then some — with the best of what Milan has to offer, the objects on view are the very last word in innovative and sophisticated design.

For nearly a year now, Bezalel has been making the rounds of the United States, showcasing its handiwork and captivating audiences at venues as varied as Sotheby’s in Chicago, the Maltz Museum in Cleveland, and MICA in Baltimore.

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Best Bric-a-Brac Culture Can Buy

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Izhar Patkin, Salonière, 1998/Jewish Museum

Over winter break, I didn’t want for activity. There were people to see, films to screen and a wealth of exhibitions to behold, one of the most inventive of which was a modest but arresting show at the Jewish Museum, on until February 3, called “Collection Tableaux.” Taking the form of four distinctive mediations — in paint, paper, glass and fabric — on the role of the table in Jewish life, the exhibition highlighted the connections between the material and the cultural dimensions of the Jewish experience.

I relished each of the artworks but, as a practicing historian, I took particular delight in Izhar Patkin’s “Salonnière,” a large scale, stenciled and framed collage of a fussy end table crowded with the kind of stuff one was likely to encounter in the determinedly bourgeois setting of a 19th-century German Jewish home: books, bric-a-brac, a tea cup and other appurtenances of the cultured.

A closer look, however, disclosed that what was on display was studded with actual historical references. As the artist would have it, the table belonged to Dorothea von Schlegel, Moses Mendelssohn’s daughter, who not only changed her name but her station in life by becoming a saloniste of the highest order. On its surface rested a couple of books, one of which, “Florentin,” she had penned. Slightly off-center, upsetting the balance, the elegant proportion, of things, was a rather unappealing and hulking porcelain figure of a monkey.

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Where Are the Books at the NYPL?

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Remember the plaintive Pete Seeger song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” In the wake of a recent research trip to the New York Public Library, I’m inclined to sing a similar song of lament about the fate of the book and call it “Where Have All the Books Gone?”

The much-bruited about renovation of this storied library has been in the news a lot lately, generating considerable controversy along the way. Its champions insist that relocating millions of volumes to an off-site storage facility will result in a new and improved library, one that meets the challenges of the digital age head-on. Its detractors insist that’s a lot of hooey or, worse still, that the library’s plan sounds the death knell for serious scholarship.

Until now, I found myself in the middle of these two camps, cautiously adopting a wait-and-see attitude. But no more. So dreary, alienating and downright disheartening was last week’s visit to the New York Public Library that I now cast my lot with the naysayers.

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Coney Island Before and After Sandy

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Ever since I first read John Kasson’s “Amusing the Million,” a vividly drawn historical account of Coney Island’s singular appeal as an urban “dreamland,” I’ve had a soft spot for that Brooklyn neighborhood, whose streets are called “Surf,” and “Mermaid,” and “Neptune.” In this, I’m not alone. So, too, did Woody Allen, I.B. Singer, Molly Picon and Ric Burns.

Sarah Ackerman

Woody Allen, for his part, set a hilarious scene in “Annie Hall” in the shadow of a Coney Island rollercoaster, while some of I.B. Singer’s literary imaginings took shape against the area’s penchant for spectacle, both natural and man-made. Molly Picon, in turn, sang buoyantly in Yiddish of one of Coney Island’s most celebrated amenities: the hot dog. Ric Burns trained his sights on the off-kilter, dreamy quality of one of America’s most famous playgrounds, especially in its electrifying late 19th and early 20th century incarnation, giving rise to his very first documentary, Coney Island.

More recently, the Coney Island History Project was established in 2004 to collect and preserve the stories of people who not only visited Coney Island on occasion but also called it home. Appropriately enough, it set up a portable recording booth on the boardwalk to capture these memories.

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The Vanishing Synagogue Bulletin Board

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

thinkstock

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

The recent volley of Jewish holidays — so rich in activity — didn’t leave much room for thinking about absence. What with a seemingly non-stop round of marketing, cooking, eating and shul-going, the opportunity to take note – and stock – of something missing all too easily got lost in the festive shuffle.

But now that things have resumed their normal course, it’s hard for me to think of anything else, from the absence of the occasional worshipper who would pop in and out of the sanctuary just in time for yizkor to the disappearance of the synagogue bulletin board.

My Forward column acknowledges and, in its own way, salutes the former. Here I’d like to give the latter its due.

For years, well before emails and other forms of digital communications colonized the contemporary Jewish world, congregants and passers-by alike would know what was going on within their local synagogue simply by glancing at an exterior bulletin board. Whether bolted to the ground or fixed to an outside wall, this metal-framed object — close kin to a movie marquee — featured such critical tidbits of information as the names of the presiding clergy and the times when services were being held. It also announced a forthcoming bar or bat mitzvah or a special Kiddush.

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More Than Just 'Radio Shmadio'

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Over the years, I’ve attended lots of symposia but never one that began with the ringing of chimes and concluded with a most hearty and prolonged round of applause. These two sounds, along with the sight of presenters swaying to the beat of “Yiddish Melodies in Swing” or singing the praises of the “Cohen on the Radio” vaudeville sketches with their catch-all phrase, “Radio, Shmadio,” were in full throttle at last week’s Library of Congress salute to Henry Sapoznik and the donation of his collection of Yiddish radio memorabilia.

Now a part of the American Folklife Center where, one hopes, it will receive a new lease on life, this treasure trove of auditory materials underscores the vibrancy of American Jewish life at the grass roots. Whether poking fun at “Sam the man who made the pants too long,” or rendering the familiar Campbell Soup jingle auf yidish, as in “Campbell Soup iz – um um – immer gut,” or introducing the very latest Hebrew folksongs, Yiddish radio informed, entertained and sustained audiences of the interwar years.

Fifty years later, Yiddish radio had the same effect on the nearly 200 people in attendance at this symposium. It held us in its static-y embrace. At many a conference, it’s customary to find more participants holding impromptu conversations in the hallway than paying attention to the proceedings.

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God and Man in Tampa

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Getty Images

People in funny hats, empty chairs, a capella singing, overheated rhetoric, a red dress — the Republicans put on quite a show in Tampa last week at their national convention. Most of it left me cold. What didn’t was the ardent public display of religion, especially the ritualized invocation. The sight of thousands of earnest delegates, their eyes shut tight in prayer as clergymen from denominations that ran the gamut from Orthodox Judaism to Mormonism intoned passages from the Bible or evoked the presence of Jesus, really got me going.

I should know better, of course. I spend a lot of my time studying, teaching, and researching the history of religion in modern America. My bookshelves groan under the accumulated weight of book after book on this very subject. I’m even at work on a volume of my own — on America’s embrace of the Ten Commandments — the very point of which is the entangled relationship between religion and culture.

And yet, while watching the Republican convention, I was truly taken aback by the ways in which religion was repeatedly affirmed. Some of my coreligionists, I suspect, were thrilled when Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik appeared on the vast stage of the convention hall to deliver the opening invocation, his hard-to-pronounce and decidedly un-American name emblazoned across the screen. Their hearts might have beat a little faster as the rabbi, in ringing but yeshivish tones, highlighted the connections between Biblical and American notions of freedom and, for good measure, punctuated his remarks with a hefty dose of Hebrew. Hebrew! In Tampa! What a triumph for the Jews!

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Radio Days Are Here Again

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Nearly 30 years ago, when musician and musicologist Henry Sapoznik first stumbled across a cache of aluminum transcription disks of Yiddish radio shows from interwar America, little did he suspect that they would find a home at the Library of Congress.

Abandoned in an attic, deposited in a dumpster, the stuff of rummage and tag sales, these acoustic artifacts, which ranged from “Yiddish Melodies in Swing” to Stuhmer’s “Pumpernickel Program,” were destined to fade away entirely had not Sapoznik recognized their value and saved them, often just in the nick of time.

But then, this stalwart champion of American Jewry’s vernacular culture did even more than that. Working together with the award-winning radio producer Dave Isay and the celebrated sound preservationist Andy Lanset, he made sure, for one thing, to preserve this material.

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Jewish Colonial Americans in All Their Glory

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

‘Moses Raphael Levy’ by Gerardus Duyckinck

Two friends of mine, ardent champions of all things cultural, were en route to Los Angeles the other day when they decided to stop off in Bentonville, Arkansas, to see the brand new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Given all the advance publicity the museum received, they knew they were in for a treat. The richness of the museum’s holdings, the affability of its setting, the imaginative architecture designed by Moshe Safdie — everything they had read about the institution suggested there would be much to please the eye and delight the senses.

What my friends did not anticipate was meeting up with the Levys and the Franks, a prosperous colonial American Jewish family. But there they were, in all their 18th-century glory: six portraits, one after the other, of the paterfamilias Moses Levy, his daughter, Abigail, son-in-law Jacob Franks and several of their children. You can’t miss them; these oil paintings, the handiwork of Gerardus Duyckinck, are front and center as you enter the museum’s very first gallery.

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Western Wall, Now in Bilgoraj

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Flickr/Malcolm Logan

The news that members of the Isaac Bashevis Singer Association of Bilgoraj intend to build a replica of the Western Wall at the site of the Polish town’s Jewish cemetery undoubtedly raised an eyebrow or two.

Coming on the heels of an announcement that the International Pro-Life Memorial and National Life Center is also planning to build a “full-size” replica of the Western Wall — and in Kansas, no less — it certainly raised mine, prompting me to think about the practice — and value — of authenticity in the 21st century.

Amid the hammer of postmodernism and the juggernaut of digital technology, both of which have altered the meaning of reality, does anyone care about authenticity anymore, especially when it comes to the primacy of place?

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Israeli Film Production, From 'Exodus' On

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Over the past half century or so, Israel has been associated in the public mind with lots of things, but movie-making has not been among them — at least not until recently. As the Forward observed this week, that’s about to change. Israel now harbors high hopes of becoming a major production center.

It’s not the first time. As The New York Times reported way back in May 1960, when Otto Preminger and a crew of 150 actors and technicians descended en masse on Israel to film “Exodus,” “the experience has immensely stimulated the exalted hopes and plans of many government people and enterprising citizens for the further production of film production here.”

Likened to a “national happening,” the making of the film took the country by storm. Thousands of ordinary citizens eagerly sought out Paul Newman and his co-star Eva Marie Saint for their autographs, took party in a national lottery to serve as extras and consulted their newspapers on a daily basis for information about what scene was being filmed where. “Exodus,” concluded the Times, was “probably the most publicized entertainment project that has come to this country since its founding.”

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