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.
While various critics have noted the strong influence that Jews have had on the creation of American comics, few have fully explored the role of Jewish women. Yet Jewish women have often been at the forefront of creative explorations in the graphic narrative form. And in many of their comics, Jewish identity is a fertile site of exploration of the unstable, contradictory, and ambiguous figurations of the self in a postmodern world.
In a June 23 talk at the New York Public Library in connection with the Forward-sponsored “Graphic Details” exhibit, I will discuss how Jewish identity figures in the works of various contemporary cartoonists, especially those of Aline Kominsky-Crumb. In her autobiographical comics, Kominsky-Crumb plays with long-held stereotypes about Jewish women and their bodies, about women and their bodies more generally, and about the representation of such bodies in the interface of various autobiographical modes. While her work has caused some to refer to her as “sexist and anti-Semitic,” Kominsky-Crumb does not simply reject such bodily codings in favor of new, more politically correct portrayals of Jewish women. Instead, she confronts stereotypical representations of Jewish women by recognizing how ingrained they are in her subjectivity and by portraying them as a constant and sometimes even productive influence in how she sees herself and others. Her work offers up the possibility that longstanding categorizations of the Jewish woman can become empowering, depending not only on who is making the statement (or creating the image), but also on how it is being made.
A.B. Yehoshua’s new novel was inspired by a painting of a woman breast-feeding her father. The 74-year-old literary luminary, who has published some 15 books, does not retreat from the provocative or the perverse.
Yehoshua calls “Spanish Charity” a probing of the creative process, and Haaretz saw it as a retrospective of the author’s own work. English readers will have to wait to judge the novel’s contents, as it is currently only available in Hebrew. Yehoshua told me the English title, which likely won’t be available until late 2012, might change to something more suggestive, perhaps simply, “The Picture.”
Yehoshua appeared at the New York Public Library in conversation with Paul Holdengräber on March 28, and reminded his audience that he is of the rare breed of writer who relishes speaking his mind, even if it means upsetting people. In 2006, for example, at a meeting of the American Jewish Committee, he suggested that a Jew could not live a completely Jewish life outside of Israel, and he still believes this.
Bibliophiles, history buffs, religionists, and the plain curious will find “Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,” the new exhibit at the main branch of the New York Public Library, an extraordinary glimpse into the history of the Abrahamic faiths and their commonalities. Partly sponsored by the Coexist Foundation, a New York non-profit dedicated “to promote better understanding between Jews, Christians, and Muslims…through education, dialogue, and research,” the exhibit was described at a press preview by the NYPL president as the “single most important, beautiful, exquisitely designed exhibit in the modern history of the New York Public Library,” not least for its lofty interfaith raison d’etre.
Originally inspired by a similar exhibit at the British Museum in 2007, “Sacred: Discover What We Share,” NYPL’s “Three Faiths,” puts on display 200 rare Jewish, Christian and Islamic sacred texts that are drawn exclusively from the permanent holdings of the NYPL.
The stately, dimly lit exhibition hall, floored in marble and ceilinged in mahogany, is arranged intelligently and elegantly, guiding visitors back in time to the ancient roots of these three great religious traditions. The very entrance to the exhibit exudes a distinctly temple-like air, suggesting to visitors that the exhibit’s sacred contents are not to be treated with levity.
View a slideshow from ‘Three Faiths’: