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I'm constantly encouraging my students to seek out new experiences, test their mettle and stretch. I don't often have an opportunity to practice what I preach -- things at my end have settled into a pretty predictable groove -- but last week, I was treated to a hefty dose of my own medicine. I found myself in a brand new setting -- a recording studio the size of a shoebox -- and staring down a set of equally new interpretive challenges. I was to pretend that I was standing in front of a series of museum objects and to chat away freely, as if in the company of good friends.

 In the Recording Studio
In the Recording Studio. Flickr/Carol VanHook

I have no trouble filling the air with the sound of my voice nor am I averse to my imagination going full tilt. All the same, in the course of the taping, which the Jewish Museum of New York had commissioned in order to add another voice, another layer of interpretation, to its exhibition, "Scenes from the Collection," I felt a little like Jimmy Stewart and his imaginary rabbit, Harvey.

It wasn't that I was pulling rabbits out of a hat, conjuring up things that didn't exist. The objects I had elected to talk about -- among them, a fanciful wooden pastry stamp, a lead Hanukkah lamp in the shape of miniature chairs, a chubby aluminum charity box with an ill-fitting lid -- were real enough: each one came with a history, a back story.

That was the easy part. The hard part was to hold forth convincingly on their appeal when all I had at my disposal -- and the listener's patience -- was a minute or two. Accustomed in the classroom and in print to the luxury of elaboration, I had now to work within the constraints of concision: to speak fast, but not too fast; to sound conversational and animated rather than didactic and flat; to induce in my audience a sense of connection and, above all, to do right by the objects.

As the taping wore on, I got better at it, more confident in my pacing and in my content, too, but before I knew it, my time in the studio was up. Already?! I hope I'll have another opportunity sometime soon to reprise my maiden sonic adventure.

In the meantime, here's to new challenges, be they acoustic, visual or somewhere in between.

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.

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.

John Cotton Dana was not pleased. By his lights, the American art museum had fallen woefully short of its potential. Too gloomy by half, it was far too remote and “dogmatic” an institution to affect the lives of most modern-day Americans. Housed in a building that “oppresses us,” the museum had become little more than a “mausoleum of curios.” It could do better, insisted the founder and director of the Newark Museum in 1917. Much better. “Surely the function of a public art museum is the making of life more interesting, joyful and wholesome.”

Monica Bill Barnes & Company
Source: NBC News
It’s taken a while -- an entire century, in fact -- for museums to make good on Dana’s pronouncement, but make good they have: The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “museum workout” is a striking case in point.

An art tour, a performance piece and a full-fledged, 45 minute exercise session bundled into one, the “museum workout” takes place in the early morning hours, when the Met has not yet opened to the public. To the sound of the Bee Gees and other pop groups with an equally strong beat, a small band of participants, led by Monica Bill Barnes and Ann Bass, two glorious professional dancers, canters through the museum’s extensive first floor galleries, engaging nearly every one of the senses.

I had the good fortune to participate in a “museum workout” this past Sunday morning (tickets are hard to come by) and can’t stop smiling. I attribute some of my good spirits to the release of endorphins -- the workout was no ‘walk in the park’ -- and some of it to having the mighty Met to myself. (Well, almost. A clutch of Met employees wearing “yield to the dance” t-shirts was positioned along the two-mile route to make sure that none of us “yielded” to the demanding, nonstop pace and fell too far behind.)

Power-walking at the Met rather than at the mall or in the nearby park felt heady, perhaps a tad transgressive. And when we assembled in front of a painting or an object to indulge in the gymnastic equivalent of an homage, stretching this way and that, or standing on one leg and then the other, I even felt a wee bit silly.

And yet, the experience worked. Powerfully. We moved, the art stood still, and then, before you could spell “M-e- t-r- o-p- o-l- i-t- a-n,” there we were, lying prone on the marble floor of the light-filled American Wing, taking it all in, one exhalation at a time.

John Cotton Dana would have been thrilled.

Having spent a number of years exploring the ways in which the Ten Commandments (a k a ‘the Decalogue’) have insinuated themselves into American popular culture, I don’t think I have ever come across them in the world of dance.

Ballerina photo shoot
Ballerina photo shoot. Flickr/David Yu

Songs, yes; movies, for sure; even an abundance of down-to- earth, helpful hints such as The Ten Commandments of Quiet Automobile Driving (“toot less”). But a dance? Never -- and certainly not a ballet.

Imagine, then, my delight in learning that a piece called “Decalogue,” the work of New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer, Justin Peck, would be making its debut on Friday evening, May 12, right on the heels of the publication of Set in Stone, my new book about the commandments. That it featured ten dancers piqued my curiosity all the more.

Were the stars aligned? The Ten Commandments trending? Might there be a fortuitous convergence of interest in these ancient dos and don’ts? Galvanized by the possibility, or, more to the point, eager to establish a connection between book and ballet, I emailed the communications folks at the New York City Ballet as well as the dance critics of the New York Times -- and held my breath.

Eventually, I heard back from the associate director of communications at the New York City Ballet, who wrote:

“Just to provide some information, the score for Justin Peck’s new work is called The Decalogue, and the ballet is simply named after the score. There is no other connection or meaning beyond that, and the ballet itself is purely abstract.”

Though disappointed by this bit of news, I was still eager to see for myself and, as luck would have it, “Decalogue” was on my Sunday afternoon subscription. It turns out that apart from the piece deploying ten dancers and having ten sections, (each marked by a Roman numeral), there was nothing else, near as I could tell, that invoked, let alone evoked, the ten commandments.

Alastair Macauley, the chief dance critic of the Times, agreed, writing “if ‘The Decalogue’ title refers to Ten Commandments, they surely aren’t those in the Bible.”

Oh well ... Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the old saying goes. Besides, conjuring up new ways to convey the ancient biblical text is fun and keeps me on my toes -- so to speak.

As nearly everyone has acknowledged by now, the march in New York, much like its sister demonstration in DC, heartened and uplifted the spirits. Even though it fell on Shabbat -- or, better yet, precisely because it coincided with the traditional Jewish day of rest -- amcha, the people in all their variegatedness, myself included, were on the move, bringing their collective values into the public sphere and onto the street. A memorable experience, from start to finish.


On the heels of the march, while back in DC a few days later, I tripped over my own feet, landing in the emergency room at GW’s hospital where I, along with many, many others, spent the better part of an entire Tuesday awaiting treatment. All I could think of as I sat there, just a few blocks away from the White House, was the chip, chip, chipping away of our health care system.

While subsequently nursing my wounds, I had occasion to make my way through Radical Bodies, the catalog that accompanies a brand new exhibition in Santa Barbara, at the University of California’s Art, Design & Architecture Museum. Focusing on the contributions of Anna Halprin, Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer to post-modern dance, Radical Bodies argues, among other things, that the experience of being Jewish in postwar America -- displacement and loss on the one hand, the plasticity and adaptability of Jewish values on the other -- inspired all three women.

I look forward eagerly to seeing this exhibition when it comes to New York’s Public Library for the Performing Arts later this year and to thinking further about the relationship between Jewishness and dance. In the meantime: On your feet, everyone!

In what can only be construed as an accident of timing, two films have just been released, one right after the other, that showcase the experience of earlier generations of American Jews. One is Woody Allen’s Café Society, the other is Indignation, a cinematic interpretation of the Philip Roth novel of the same name.

The first film, set amidst the tony New York supper clubs and swanky Beverly Hills homes of the interwar years, follows the ups and downs of Bronx-bred Bobby Dorman as he seeks both his fortune and sense of self in Hollywood and among the belle monde.

The second, set in the early 1950s amidst a handsome, leafy college campus somewhere in Ohio (it’s actually Princeton), follows the trajectory of Marcus -- a k a “Marky” -- Messner -- as he, too, leaves the nest -- Newark, New Jersey, in his case -- for the wider world.

Apart from their geographical distinctiveness, the two films have much in common. Their cast of characters, often verging on stock and stereotype, includes earnest, hungry young men from lower middle class American Jewish families; their anxious and inept fathers, and their strong willed, fierce mothers who find it increasingly difficult to bite their tongues as their sons take flight.

Both films seek to lay bare -- sometimes in a heavy handed way and at other moments, much more subtly -- the costs of integration, or what academics like to call “acculturation.” In plain language: What happens when the lure of the supper club trumps the lure of the seder table and escargot take the place of brisket?

Well, nothing that we haven’t seen before, which is why the release of these two films and their attendant popularity -- at my local movie house, they’re packin’ em in -- puzzles me. Leaving aside their respective cinematic merits -- I’ll leave you to decide which one is more absorbing and compelling -- I can’t help wonder what is it about upwardly mobile, starry-eyed American Jewish sons and their more hidebound parents that renders that tale so evergreen.

It can’t only be a matter of nostalgia or a collective wistfulness for a seemingly simpler era. I’d like to think there’s more to it than that. Then again, given the zeitgeist in which we currently find ourselves, perhaps retrospection is more attractive than thinking about what lies ahead.

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!

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.

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, one of the things that strikes me is how each generation of Jews, drawing on tradition as well as on the latest technology and the most current protocol, has developed its own way of wishing one another well for the new year. Here, as with other elements of Jewish life and culture, constancy and novelty go hand in hand.

Rosh Hashanah card from the Rosenthall collection
Rosh Hashanah card from the Rosenthall collection

These days, cleverly animated digital greetings rule the roost, one more amusing than the next. Your inbox, like mine, is probably full of them.

When I was growing up, my parents and their friends opted for a more restrained form of exchange, one that placed a premium on good paper stock and just a few lines of handsomely embossed text: “Mr. and Mrs. Irving Weissman and family wish you a healthy and a happy New Year.” Emily Post would have approved.

My grandparents, in turn, were likely to avail themselves of a colorful array of Jewish New Year’s cards, the more bedecked and ornamented, the better. Taking their cue from Christmas and Easter holiday cards, which they often repurposed, shana tovas, as they were known, fancied accordion pleats, paper hinges and other movable parts. In the New World, tradition, they seemed to suggest, was not static, but on the go. That so many coreligionists were also on the go, migrating from one part of the globe to another, was surely not lost on those who purchased and posted these greeting cards.

Earlier generations of Jews, after all, made do with a handshake and a verbal greeting. When communities were intact and intimately sized, there was simply no need for anything more elaborate.

No matter their form, or, for that matter, their language, Jewish New Year greetings are to be treasured. A holiday salute as well as a reflection of circumstance, they speak to a shared sense of community.

Shana tova, a zisn yahr, anyada buena, and a happy new year to one and all.

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