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I've just returned home after having spent nearly a week -- and a most stimulating one, at that -- in Charleston, South Carolina, at an NEH-sponsored Summer Institute on Southern Jewry. Hosted by the College of Charleston’s Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture, academics from around the country gathered together to explore the impact of the South on the modern Jewish experience.

Outside, the humidity was so high you'd sweat up a storm even when standing still. But indoors, talk one sultry morning was of things that kept one warm rather than cool: of samovars, boiling water and tea.

An original Russian samovar/Flickr: mmoorr.

No, we hadn't taken leave of our senses on account of the weather. Rather, prompted by the institute's thoughtful and imaginative conveners, historians Dale Rosengarten and Shari Rabin, to think about what artifacts we might have at home that reflected Jewish immigrant life, the samovar loomed large in our deliberations.

The Russian "self-boiler" also loomed large in an archival photograph from the College of Charleston’s remarkable Jewish Heritage Collection: an early 20th century pawnshop in downtown Charleston, whose dusty, uppermost shelves were lined, cheek by jowl, with one samovar after another.

A characteristically lively discussion ensued, with the institute's participants wondering aloud how the samovar might have made its arduous way from the Pale of Settlement to the Charleston Peninsula; pondering why so many immigrants lugged the bulky, unwieldy thing from the Old World to the New; and querying where they might have obtained one in the first place (At a regional fair? From a peddler?). Questions beget questions.

I'm not sure we resolved much of anything, but in this instance, as in so many others throughout the institute, it wasn't for want of trying: Conversation flowed as thickly as strong, black Russian tea. More to the point, through a welter of carefully designed and varied activities -- walking tours, site visits, digital exercises, archival research -- we sought assiduously and sensitively to grapple with issues that were as insistently present as the samovar in the homes of Jewish immigrants and their descendants: the intractability of prejudice, the institutionalization of racism, expressions of cultural anxiety, the long shadows of the past, the protocols of memorialization.

I don't know whether the participants in the summer institute will continue to keep in touch as this summer yields to another. What I do know, though, is that right now I can't stop thinking of the ways in which the search for historical truth -- usually a solo enterprise -- rendered us a community.

One of the loveliest exhibitions I’ve seen all year was “Hymn to Apollo: The Ancient World and the Ballets Russes,” at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. A bijoux of a show, its carefully selected array of artifacts, costumes, drawings and photographs explores the ways in which the arts of the ancient world impinged on, and freed, the imagination of the modern artists, choreographers, dancers and composers associated with the fabled Ballets Russes.

Delaunay Cleopatre
Sonia Delaunay. Costume Design for the Title Role of Cléopâtre. 1918. Metropolitan Museum of Art/NYU Institute for the Study of the Ancient World

The lively intelligence of the exhibition’s curators, Clare Fitzgerald and Rachel Herschman, made itself felt throughout, resulting in an exhibition that was fresh, smart and affecting.

“Hymn to Apollo” also put me in mind of the power of art to create a community of the likeminded, a timely reminder as the academic year, and with it, GW’s graduate programs in the Jewish cultural arts, draws to a close.

While no would-be Diaghilevs or Nijinskys were among this year’s students, I hold out the hope that the training they received in how to think about, conjure up and implement Jewish culture will keep them on their toes as they move out into the world.

Of all the visual elements at their disposal, graphic designers, I’ve been told, more than meet their match when it comes to the ampersand, that thousand-year-old sign for “and.” A prominent part of a headline or a company name, the “&” not only sticks out and commands attention, challenging graphic designers to make the most of its line, it also serves as a bridge between two or more components.

GW Mosaic
Credit: Erik Mace

The use of the ampersand as a cultural practice is equally challenging. What does it mean to think of the “&” as a programming opportunity, a way to engage and expand one’s frame of reference, an expression of good will?

For the outgoing cohort of students in GW’s Program in Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts who were responsible for designing a whirlwind orientation, known as Mosaic, for the incoming cohort, translating the ampersand into action was key.

Making connections between the students and the city; between the students and the organizations at which their fieldwork placements would take place; between the students and Jewish history; between one group of students and another defined the enterprise, from start to finish.

Though Mother Nature wasn’t entirely cooperative, raining -- quite literally -- on our parade, here’s hoping that both those who are new to GW and those who are taking their leave of it are now bound together by the “&” that lies at the heart of the Program in Experiential Education & Jewish Cultural Arts.

Calling all culture mavens.

Intrigued by Jewish culture? Curious about what goes on behind the scenes? Gung ho about the opportunities it presents for both personal and communal engagement?

Artwork by Erik Mace
Artwork by Erik Mace

You're in luck. GW has just the program: a four course (12 credit) boutique learning experience called the Graduate Certificate in Jewish Cultural Arts. It's designed to deepen your understanding of Jewish cultural expression and to sharpen your skills as an advocate and proponent of the arts.

Its wide-ranging courses consider the often confounding complexities of contemporary Jewish life as well as the history of famous and infamous museum exhibitions about the Jews and Judaism; explore changing responses to such classic milestones as The Diary of Anne Frank and Fiddler on the Roof and take note of the music scene in the United States, Europe and Israel.

For more details, please visit this site or contact me, Jenna Weissman Joselit, at this email address.

A world of comedy, dance, exhibitions, film, music, theater, television and visual expression awaits.

I’ve been meaning for weeks now to blog, but one thing or another -- academic responsibilities, looming deadlines -- got in the way, as did my bed. I’m not suggesting that it literally blocked access to my computer, for that wasn’t the case. Rather, the arduous, time-consuming process of finding a new one distracted me from all else.

Princess and the Pea by Edmund Dulac
The Princess and the Pea by Edmund Dulac. 1911. Source/Wikipedia

After years of dutiful service, my bed recently gave up the ghost. It made the most peculiar noises when I lay down my head; sagged where it shouldn’t and, as the mattress coils increasingly lost their elasticity, had an alarming tendency to zing my body in all the wrong places.

And still, I slept on -- or tried to -- ignoring the multiple advertisements online and in the press that touted the virtues of luxury firm, luxury cushion firm, plush firm, cushion firm, extra firm, firm and classic plush mattresses. I’m not easily daunted, but when it came to purchasing a new bed, the plethora of options did me in well before I even factored in the bottom line.

Complicating matters was the not inconsiderable matter of having to throw things out to accommodate my latest purchase. Over the years, numerous books and publications, including nearly twenty years’ worth of Gourmet magazines, had taken up permanent residence in my bedroom, along with some personal files and an assortment of trinkets that, for some reason, never made it into either a filling cabinet or an interior shelf.

I thought the occasion might furnish an excellent opportunity, a good excuse, to engage in a spot of domestic archaeology. On paper, it certainly was; but reckoning with the accumulation of stuff (Should I hold on to it? Throw it out? Give it away?), turned out to be far more emotionally demanding and time-consuming than I had anticipated.

Eventually, I cleared my end table of this, that and the other thing; threw out many garbage bags of stuff and then ordered a mattress (firm) and all the trimmings.

It arrived the other day and the only fly in the ointment is that it’s so welcoming and comfortable that I don’t want to get out of bed.

As the semester draws to a close, I can’t help wondering how much of an impact the assigned readings, critical response papers, classroom discussions and final projects had on my students: Do they emerge from my classes with an expanded sense of life's challenges and possibilities? With a heightened awareness of the relationship between the past and the present? Do they leave with fire in their bellies?

Based on a former mezuzah in the Warsaw Ghetto, from Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar's "Mezuzah from this home" series.

To measure the effectiveness of our courses, the university mandates that our syllabi prominently feature a section called "learning objectives." But that rubric and its corollary, "assessment," doesn’t quite get at the heart of things; it's too clinical, too cold. What I'd like to know is what kind of imprint the study of Jewish history and culture leaves on my students.

Yes, that's right: 'imprint' -- a word that's both precise and fuzzy. An imprint leaves a tangible mark and yet something about it is indeterminate, open to interpretation.

An imprint, as a young Polish couple, Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar, knows all too well, haunts the imagination. An imprint, they've come to discover as they turn their artistic training to the making of contemporary Judaica, fires the imagination, too. Traveling to more than sixty cities throughout Poland and Ukraine, Czernek and Prugar look for what they evocatively call "mezuzah fossils," traces in the wood of a door frame -- a depression, say, or a silhouette -- of the traditional Jewish ritual object which, then, as now, renders a home a haym.

Vestiges of a once-vibrant presence, these indentations are easily overlooked; oftentimes, the aging, cracked wooden doorposts that once contained them have been discarded, cast atop a junk pile. But Czernek and Prugar not only take note, photographing the site and recording its address; they also take an imprint, preserving its outline in plaster, silicon and wax. And from that amalgam, they then fashion a brand new mezuzah out of bronze, a mezuzah that houses the words of the Shema as well as a reference to the place from whence it came.

A functional ritual object as well as an intimately-scaled memorial, these "trace-based mezuzot," as Czernek and Prugar put it, connect the past with the present in a way that imprints them both on your doorpost and mine.

What with teaching and writing, fussin’ and frettin,’ I haven’t had much time of late to step back from my daily pursuits and contemplate what I’m up to -- and why. Thankfully, there are conferences for that. Interrupting one’s daily routine, they provide an opportunity to take stock and, if the conversation and the wine flow freely enough, to recharge as well.

Zurbarán Asher Frick
Francisco de Zurbarán. "Asher," c. 1640–45. Oil on canvas. The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust. Photo credit: Robert Robert LaPrelle

And so it was at last week’s annual CAJM conference at which a hundred-plus of my colleagues gathered together in Washington, D.C., to talk shop, stare down and confront the mighty forces arrayed against the values we hold dear and cheer one another onward and upward.

Shuttling among Sixth and I, the Wilson Center and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, with stops along the way at the Museum of the Bible and the National Museum of the American Indian Museum, conference participants, who came from hither and yon, were exposed directly to D.C.’s unparalleled and varied panoply of cultural institutions.

We also learned about collection strategies in a session that turned out, at least for me, to be unexpectedly moving as curators spoke of racing against the clock to secure artifacts before it is too late and of caring for “injured objects.” Other sessions attended to the exigencies of cultural preservation in the war-ravaged Middle East, the challenges of mounting exhibitions on dark and difficult themes and the ways in which Jewish cultural institutions might find a place for themselves within the civic square. No easy answers were to be had at CAJM, but it wasn’t for want of trying again and again: an exhausting but ultimately energizing exercise.

Having slept the entire way home to New York, I was primed the next morning to visit the Frick Collection where Zurbarán’s “Jacob and His Twelve Sons,” an exhibition of 13 life-size portraits of the biblical family are on display. A tour de force, it’s a must-see.

Dazzling and delighting the eye -- I couldn’t take mine off Zurbarán’s depiction of the gorgeously-clad Asher, who holds in his hand a basket of rolls -- the exhibition also unexpectedly brings to the fore a number of key themes in Jewish history, from the identification of the New World’s indigenous populations with the Ten Lost Tribes to the rancor and hostility that accompanied the passage of the Jew Bill in 18th century England. Zurbarán and the Jewish question: Who knew?!

Now I do, and for that, and for CAJM’s expressions of collegiality, I’m grateful -- and re-energized.

Well before it opened its enormous doors a few months ago, the Museum of the Bible in downtown Washington, D.C., was the subject of avid discussion within the academic and museum communities I inhabit. Some of my colleagues rolled their eyes at the thought of a museum focused entirely on the good book; others worried lest the institution’s association with the right-wing Hobby Lobby and its overtly evangelical agenda might irrevocably compromise and tarnish its integrity. Still others, holding their collective breath, preferred to reserve judgment until they could see for themselves what the fuss was about.

The Museum of the Bible's digital ceiling.
The Museum of the Bible's digital ceiling.
I agreed with all of them. Much as I love museums and devote a great deal of my professional life to exploring their history and cultural impact, the prospect of an encyclopedic biblical museum -- eight floors worth! - didn’t whet my whistle. That this D.C. institution was sponsored, funded and executed by Americans whose views on just about everything ran counter to my own dimmed my potential enthusiasm even further. And while I never went as far as some of my colleagues who believed that, in a 21st century version of supersessionism, the Museum of the Bible was guilty of erasing the Jews from the narrative, I was reluctant to expose myself to even the faintest hint of that world-view. But duty, and a sense of fair play, also tugged at me ... and so off I went.

Me -- and thousands of others. As I approached the museum at 11 a.m. on an ordinary Tuesday, a huge queue of folks waiting eagerly to enter greeted me: the first of many surprises and, as I now look back, an intimation of things to come. (A museum official subsequently told me that attendance ranges from five to seven thousand visitors a day.)

Next: the front doors. Although I had read in the Wall Street Journal of their “brazen monumental[ity]” -- the bronze gates are a towering 38 feet tall -- I was completely taken aback (and taken in) by their scale. It’s been said that they replicate the first two press plates of the Gutenberg Bible, but they put me in mind of Ghiberti’s glorious bronze Baptistery doors in Florence.

Once inside the Museum of the Bible (this takes a while; visitors are required to deposit their belongings in a space-age-looking contraption before proceeding onto another queue), the enormity and lightness of the lobby took my breath away, as did its ceiling.

Yes, the ceiling. It features an enormous digital array of images culled from illustrated manuscripts as well as the Sistine Chapel and floods the space with color, movement and vitality. It signals to visitors that they’re in for a visual treat and with it, an animated engagement with the ancient text.

I bring up these physical elements because they warrant mention on their own terms. The museum’s deployment of scale and volume bespeaks its commitment to, and exercise of, the visual imagination, giving new meaning to that old saw about a phenomenon of biblical proportions.

It’s funny how the themes of one course often dovetail with and echo those of another, especially when that’s not my intention. As the semester drew to a close, the geometry of space -- and with it, the cultural significance of boxes -- came unexpectedly to the fore in both my classes.

Frances Glessner Lee, Parsonage Parlor
Frances Glessner Lee, Parsonage Parlor, about 1946-48. Collection of the Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Source: Renwick Gallery

To cap off their semester-long inquiry into the life of things, my undergraduate students visited a marvelous exhibition at the Renwick Gallery called “Murder Is Her Hobby.” Featuring nineteen carefully documented renditions of a crime scene down to the smallest detail -- a kitchen apron, a wall calendar, a batch of newspapers crumbled on the floor, a cracked window, blood splatter -- they bring to mind miniaturized period rooms, or better yet, dollhouses. Each case study is housed in a small box-like structure and every artifact within it is tiny.

The handiwork of Frances Glessner Lee, the first female police captain in the United States, these were no playthings. Exercises in forensic science rather than aesthetics, they were designed to train law enforcement personnel in the spotting of clues and the solving of crimes. Mental acuity, not fun, was the point.

“Murder Is Her Hobby” challenged the visual imagination, where the Berlin Jewish Museum’s 2013 exhibition, “The Whole Truth ... Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Jews,” rattled the moral imagination of my graduate students, who, four years later, were taking its pulse as well as that of other Jewishly-themed exhibitions since the late 19th century. The star attraction of that exhibition was a single plexiglass box that contained only one thing – a Jewish person, or, more precisely, a changing roster of Jewish people.

Designed to encourage visitors to pose questions about Judaism and Jewish history they might not otherwise have had an opportunity, or were reluctant, to ask, the well-intentioned exhibition -- soon known as the “Jew in the Box” -- foundered on the shoals of controversy.

It was one thing, after all, to put Jewish history and culture on display; quite another, especially in Berlin, of all places, to put real-life Jews on display as if they were objects, no matter how willing their participation.

Some of the students argued in favor of the “Jew in the Box,” claiming that it provided an opportunity for dialogue and conversation, demystification and normalization. Others thought it inappropriate, tone-deaf to history, rendering the Jew a curiosity -- or worse.

As you can well imagine, our discussion got a little heated. But then, that is as it should be. No matter their size or degree of ornamentation, boxes ought not to imprison us.

My Manhattan neighborhood, which dates back to the late 19th century, is awash in construction. You can’t walk down a block without being assailed by the noise of jackhammers and the sight of backhoes with their metal claws extending onto the street. Here a new building, there a new building.

 Construction zone
Construction zone. Flickr/Grant Hollingworth

I guess I’ve caught the bug because, I, too, an engaged in a construction project but, thankfully, mine doesn’t encompass heavy machinery. Its tools are words and ideas. You see I’m constructing a syllabus for a brand new course.

It’s one thing to tinker with an existing syllabus, deleting readings that didn’t take hold, adding something new that wasn’t available the first or second time around, tightening the course’s focus and orientation.

Coming up with a brand new syllabus is another matter entirely. Much like a building, it requires a foundation and a cornerstone; ornamentation and elaboration; volume and shape.

The architect of a syllabus also needs to pay close attention to more subtle matters, too, such as the rhythm of a course and the way in which its themes not only relate to one another like a multi-story building, but also accumulate over the course of a semester and come to a peak.

And then, of course, there’s the question of balance, of how many readings to assign before they lose their luster, becoming more of a burden than a gift; of establishing a proper ratio between text and film, lecture and field trip.

Of all this, the students don’t have a clue. What concerns them is not the arc of a syllabus or its equilibrium, but more quotidian issues: Are the readings too long or too difficult? Are they readily accessible online? How many hours will I have to devote to this course to do well in it? Can I possibly maintain my interest week after week when so many other external things beckon?

Perhaps that’s just as well. The construction and successful execution of a syllabus might be more properly construed as a back story, a part of the production process, one of the tricks of the trade. If we do our job properly, the students will emerge with a new base of knowledge as well as a fresh set of critical skills borne on the wings of the weekly assignments.

The new course that prompts these musings has to do with the postwar Jewish experience in Europe, Israel and the United States. I’ve never taught this before; the material -- there’s so much of it! -- is entirely new to me. I’m hopeful, though, that with the right tools, the course -- and the syllabus on which it rests -- will enrich the landscape of modern Jewish history.

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