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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.

I don’t envy future historians who will set out to chronicle modern Jewish life, ca. 2017. Swirling with contradictions, with a “this” for every “that,” it’s enough to make Tevye, Sholom Aleichem’s famously ambivalent character who delighted in routinely invoking “on the one hand” and “on the other,” run for cover.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim postcard
Moritz Daniel Oppenheim postcard

Consider, for instance, contemporary attitudes towards the celebration of Shabbat, the traditional Jewish Sabbath. An age-old practice that has received a new lease on life of late, keeping Shabbat is increasingly associated with tuning out, with putting one’s smartphones, laptops and iPads to rest. As Reboot’s “Sabbath Manifesto” would have it, we digital devotees would do well to pledge to “unplug from technology regularly.”

Whether encouraged by Reboot or by the rabbinate, the Sabbath is hailed these days as an opportunity rather than a burden. Its latter-day promotion is reminiscent in many ways of the postwar campaign launched by the women of the Conservative movement to honor the Sabbath by pledging publicly not to do laundry, market, head for the golf course or the local museum and movie house on that day.

So far, so good.

On the other hand, there’s this: leading Jewish cultural institutions such as the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia now open their doors on a Saturday — and to paying customers. The decision to “operate normally,” explained a former official of the Philadelphia facility, reflects the “tension between freedom and tradition [that is] at the core of the American Jewish experience.” (The Jewish Museum in New York is also open on a Saturday, but admission is free.)

And this: Just the other day, Israel’s High Court ruled that over one hundred businesses — food stores, mainly — in Tel Aviv, would be allowed to offer their wares on Shabbat, overturning a longstanding municipal interdiction against commercial activity on the traditional day of rest.

Good news for some, especially those who’ve chafed under the heavy hand of halakha (Jewish law), this latest turn of events profoundly upsets others, raising the possibility that the Sabbath, once considered a “national asset,” will come to have a limited shelf life.

The jury is still out — and will undoubtedly be out for some time. We’ll have to await the verdict of history.

More than a century ago, visitors to London’s Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition encountered an embarrassment of riches: nearly 3,000 items that ranged from a Hebrew version of “God Save the Queen” to a brass model of Solomon’s Temple.

Shofar. Flickr/Ars Electronica
Shofar. Flickr/Ars Electronica

An attempt to shore up and secure Anglo-Jewry’s relationship to the British Empire, an exercise in both apologetics and cultural pride, the exhibition dazzled the eye, or so we are told.

The students in my grad seminar, “Displaying Jewish Culture,” where we recently took the measure of the exhibition, were not so much dazzled as baffled. Its sweep and scale they understood as strategic, a way to make the case that the Jews had a rich and complex cultural patrimony, but the paucity of interpretive information that accompanied the objects on display was something else again.

Consider, for example, item number 1535, a shofar, or, as the catalogue explained, a “ram’s horn trumpet.” Housed in a section of the exhibition given over to music, it was identified simply as “quaint and old.” Ditto for item number 1540, a shofar described as “very old,” and its companion, number 1548, which featured “black from age” as its label.

Where, oh, where, wondered the students, was information about context or usage or significance?
Surely, vague descriptive phrases on the order of ‘old’ and ‘very old’ didn’t do much for the shofar, especially among the uninitiated.

As we batted about the absence of detail from our latter-day perches, generating lively conversation about the sea changes in museological conventions and expectations since 1887, it occurred to me that the curators of the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition had gotten it right.

When it came to the shofar, what really mattered was not so much its materiel or place of origin or maker. A blast from the past, the ram’s horn trumpeted the values of historicity, connecting one generation with another.

On that note, here’s wishing one and all a sweet new year and a vibrant and meaningful 5778.

In what has become an annual tradition come late August, GW’s Program in Experiential Education & Jewish Cultural Arts welcomes its new, and hopefully merry, band of students to town by hosting a whirlwind orientation called Mosaic.

Click on image to read the brochure

Drawing loosely on the theme of building blocks, this year’s Mosaic had us both poolside, sipping cocktails, and in an old-fashioned parlor, playing the 21st century equivalent of parlor games.

When not sitting down, we walked around Dupont Circle, taking in its architectural delights; made our way downtown to Sixth and I for a lively exchange about institutional sustainability; and took the measure of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s deployment of space. We ate a lot, too.

The point throughout was to think about what it takes to build relationships, institutions and community. Without literalizing matters too much, the big idea behind this year’s Mosaic was to cast a searching eye on the constituent elements — the building blocks — that the students will draw on in the course of their training
as well as in their subsequent careers.

What kind of “structures” will they end up fashioning? It’s too early to tell, of course, but over the course of the next 13 months, they will have ample opportunity to pick up and assemble the right tools.

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.

As June gave way to July, religion had quite a week. First, a monument to the Ten Commandments that had just been erected in Arkansas by the innocuous-sounding American History and Heritage Foundation was demolished by an angry citizen. Alleged to have yelled ‘Freedom,’ as his car plowed into the three-ton stone sculpture, he made his opposition to the planting of religiously-themed statuary on public grounds dramatically clear, giving Moses, who had angrily dashed the Ten Commandments to the ground the first time around, a run for his money.

Flag. Flickr/Paul Wiethorn
Flag. Flickr/Paul Wiethorn

Ever since the 1950s, when the Fraternal Order of Eagles first set about depositing large-scale monuments to the Ten Commandments in the public square, some Americans have expressed grave concern at what they see as a violation of the First Amendment. In each instance, they’ve turned to the courts, couching their opposition in judicial terms.

It’s too early to tell whether what happened in Arkansas is an aberration or a portent of things to come. But one thing is already clear: Smashing the Ten Commandments is not the way to go.

Meanwhile, miles to the north, in D.C., a counter narrative has emerged, one that celebrates rather than pillories America’s relationship to religious expression. For the first time in more than a century, the National Museum of American History mounted an exhibition that explored the variety of ways in which the citizens of the early republic -- a polyglot lot, if ever there was one -- gave voice and shape to faith.

Curated by the estimable and widely-published Peter Manseau, “Religion in Early America” has something for everyone: George Washington’s christening robe, as pristine as a new-born babe; a first edition of the Book of Mormon; the easily-transportable wooden pulpit used by George Whitfield when preaching outdoors; a church bell produced by Paul Revere; a thirteen-page text in Arabic outlining the basics of Islamic practice and a Torah scroll that had been burnt by Hessian soldiers during the Revolutionary War, courtesy of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. (The last item, I have to say, gave me pause: Why is the only object in the exhibition that represents the Jews in a state of complete and utter disrepair? I have no doubt that its deployment was well-intentioned; even so, viewers might associate Judaism with destruction, not a pleasing prospect.)

A jewel of a show, “Religion in Early America” is well worth a trip to our nation’s capital. Nothing if not timely, it reminds us that diversity and with it, freedom of expression, is our greatest asset.

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.

When last we left off, I was in search of a narrative that would weld the various elements of my research into a book.

Book cover, Set in Stone.
Book cover, Set in Stone.

Finding a through-line and devising a plot took me to lots of places. It had me perched precariously atop a fire escape on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to see what I could see of the silhouette of a now-vanished stained glass window that had once featured the Ten Commandments in the round.

It also took the form of a class field trip to Trenton, New Jersey, where my students were charged with locating a six foot monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state capital. You’d think that would be a walk in the park, but it took some doing. The monument, somewhat the worse for wear, was tucked away in a thicket of trees.

My pursuit of perspective brought me even further afield to the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in Coshocton, Ohio, whose holdings include an allegedly ancient relic of the Decalogue exhumed by amateur archaeologists on the eve of the Civil War, and to Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. Its glorious sanctuary features a 1905 piece of Americana in which Moses receives the Ten Commandments against the background of El Capitan rather than Mount Sinai.

Closer to home, my search for an overarching framing device took me to the steps of the United States Supreme Court where, nearly a century after the Moses-in-America stained-glass window took shape, champions of the Decalogue brandished cardboard versions of the tablets as they circled the courthouse, anxiously waiting to hear whether or not the public display of the biblical code was constitutional.

It would be nice to say that once I settled down to the business of writing, everything -- the stained-glass windows, archaeological relics, faux Decalogues and the primary and secondary literature that I had consulted over the years -- fell into place, enabling me to coax a coherent narrative out of so many disparate bits and pieces.

No such luck. Another year came and went and then another...

Eventually, though, thanks to the alchemy of writing and a lot of staring at the computer screen, things came together. I found my voice and a structure to contain it. And behold: a book.

Eight years, 10 months and 5 days after I started out on the cultural trek that resulted in my writing a book about America’s fascination with the Ten Commandments, Set in Stone comes into the world. I never imagined this project would take as long as it did.

Book cover, Set in Stone.
Book cover, Set in Stone.

From past experience, I was keenly aware that book-making takes time and patience. Even so, in working on this particular project I felt one with my forebears, the ancient Israelites wandering around the desert with no end insight. Would I ever reach my destination? Or, more to the plaintive point, why was this taking so long?

I could point an accusatory finger at the intrusions at the outside world, at least for starters. Aging parents and their subsequent deaths in quick succession, coupled with a new academic position, replete with administrative responsibilities, diverted me from my appointed rounds. These challenges demanded my immediate attention to the exclusion of all else. The Ten Commandments would have to wait.

But that was just the half of it. Writing about the ancient dos and don’ts, let alone coming up with something new to say about them, turned out to be a daunting enterprise -- far more than I bargained for. Calling for the patience of a Job and the mental agility of a Sherlock Holmes -- and I was neither -- it entailed sifting through a voluminous and varied body of material: texts upon texts, paintings and poster art, comic books and court cases, music and film.

Having abundant material on which to draw was a mixed blessing. It wasn’t so much a matter of competing voices, though that certainly slowed things down, as it was the absence of a clear through-line. Discerning a pattern, an argument, a claim about these biblical passages and their tenacious hold on the American imagination eluded me.

Sure, I could have taken the curatorial high road, showcasing the Ten Commandments of this and that and the third thing. But I was writing a book, not mounting an exhibition, even one with the potential to be lively and engaging. I was in need of a narrative.

To be continued….

Back in the day when I was a high school student at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, the teachers of Judaic subjects such as Bible, Hebrew literature and Jewish history took attendance. They would call out a name and the person attached to it would respond -- or not.

Set in Stone America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments
Introduction to Jenna's website, designed by Erik Mace.

What rendered this rather ordinary practice somewhat unusual was the variety of responses to it. A simple, unreflective answer would simply not do. A competitive bunch in this and everything else, we vied with one another as to the most creative or humorous reply. Some of us stood up when our names were called; others acknowledged the teacher’s authority with a flourish of the hand. Still others stayed in their seats, their hands at their side, and either bellowed or whispered a world-weary “yes.” A number of my classmates who liked the sound of their names repeated them. A few of us, myself included, preferred the directness of the Hebrew expression: “po,” we would say. “Here.”

At the time, I thought the use of “po” was not only strategic, but amusing, too. Such a tiny word -- more of a sound than a concept -- struck me as funny. Though my particular brand of adolescent humor has long since disappeared along with my youth, I still find “po” funny -- or, perhaps more to the point, endearing. Although I was hardly mindful of it when in high school, there’s an innocence, a sweetness, to the manner in which the word registers presence.

I’ve been given to thinking about my “po” days as I launch a brand new website to mark the imminent release of my new book, Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments. Working closely with the imaginative and witty, thoughtful and oh-so patient web designer, Erik Mace, I conjured up a digital presence for myself. A complicated bit of business, an exercise in self reflection if ever there was one, it called on me to do a lot more than simply answer “po.”

These days, when someone wants to know if I’m in the room, I respond:

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