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Paris has the Eiffel Tower, London its Big Ben and for two days this week, New York has Sukkah City.

Thanks to an architectural competition conceived of by Joshua Foer and administered and funded by Reboot, 12 different, decidedly postmodern versions of the ancient ritual structure (or booth) whose origins date back to Biblical times, will briefly take root in Union Square Park come Sunday and Monday.

Much like Christo's 2005 site specific project, The Gates, in which Central Park was awash in orange-colored flags, its downtown cousin, once the scene of countless labor demonstrations and rallies, is now awash in sukkahs (or, to be correct about it, sukkot).

The intrusion of an age-old, religiously-mandated architectural idiom into the modern urban landscape lends a special frisson, perhaps even a touch of naughtiness, to the proceedings; call it playful incongruity.

Equally incongruous, especially for those familiar with the often hastily cobbled, jerry-built, aesthetically inchoate form of most sukkahs, is the high degree of aestheticism lavished on these 12 exemplars.

Most booths are lucky if they remain standing throughout the week-long festival of Succoth. In striking contrast, these are the handiwork of trained architects; they're beautifully assembled, handsomely crafted, and well thought out.

But then, incongruity and aesthetics are not the only things that render Sukkah City a real treat for the eye and the spirit.

What's most exhilarating is the way the sukkah has been transformed from a curiosity into a spectacle. For much of its history in the United States, the sukkah was a private, unobtrusive bit of business. Mindful of what the neighbors would think, most American Jews, at least until fairly recently, kept their succahs to themselves. Some American Jews even went so far as to miniaturize it, rendering the outdoor structure into a centerpiece for their dining room table.

But no more. Thanks to this imaginative and affirming event – a happening, in the best sense of the word - the sukkah has found a place for itself in the modern public square.

"Single Thread" by Matter Practice. Sukkah City website. Courtesy of Joshua Foer.

This article, which first appeared in the Forward's blog The Arty Semite, is part of a cross-posting partnership with the Forward.

By Menachem Wecker

According to the MoMA website, Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe screen-print series challenged "the concept of the unique art work by repeating the same mechanically produced image until it appeared to be drained of all meaning."

It's tempting to cite Warhol's Marilyns as the inspiration for the 18 screen prints in Miriam Mörsel Nathan's Greta series, each of which shows a different colored version of the same dress.

But whereas Warhol used redundancy to emphasize triviality, Mörsel Nathan's series is intentionally repetitive, leaving no color palette untried in its search for the answer to a particular question.

Leafing through pre-World War II photographs, Mörsel Nathan, former director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, discovered a picture of her aunt Greta, whom she had never met. When she started making prints based on the image, she realized she had no idea what color to use for her aunt's dress.

"The series of screen prints is of the same dress but in many different colors, as if to say to my aunt Greta, 'Which of these do you like?'" says Mörsel Nathan in a wall text at the exhibit "Memory of a time I did not know…" at the Washington D.C. JCC's Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery. "There is little that I know about my aunt…These walls of many dresses remind me of what I don't know."
...continue reading "On Marilyn Monroe, Aunt Greta and a Dress of Many Colors"

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From Under the Fig Tree is delighted to announce another first: a content sharing partnership (aka "cross-posting") with the Forward's culture blog, The Arty Semite and its curator, Dan Friedman, who is also the newspaper's arts and culture editor.

To mark the occasion, Menachem Wecker, a staff writer for GW Today and himself a celebrated blogger for the Houston Chronicle, has moderated a conversation between Jenna Weissman Joselit and Dan Friedman on the relationship of the academy to journalism and the arts.

MW: Dan, as someone with a lot of experience in Jewish journalism, what are some of the challenges inherent in interviewing scholars of Jewish history or culture? Is it tough to get professors to speak in anything close to sound bites? What are some of the things you wish all Judaic studies professors hopeful of appearing in the Forward’s arts and culture section knew about your beat?

DF: Well I don't want professors to talk in sound bites, not in my section. But I think that for those professors who write for my section, it's a struggle to get the right mixture of clarity, complexity and conciseness. Coming from an academic background myself, I know that timeliness, brevity and accessibility were not particularly prized in Ph.D. programs. I wonder whether Jenna, who has written in a number of different venues, addresses questions of writing for her students.

MW: Jenna, what's your reaction?

JWJ: Like Dan, I, too, prize the three C's of writing and make a point of sharing them with my students as they work on their papers and presentations. Then again, I also make a point of staying away from the dreaded red pencil markings, which various online editing systems have imported, lest my students flee in horror. I much prefer the more gentle stylings, and nudges, of a gray lead pencil. As Dan points out, I've had the good fortune to write for a number of different venues and this, I have to say, has done wonders for my writing as well as my embrace of deadlines.

MW: Let's try a flipped version of the first question. Jenna, how willing have you found your colleagues in academia to be interviewed by reporters at Jewish publications? Do you think professors tend to see media engagement (and reaching out to the larger, non-scholarly public) as part of their teaching responsibilities? One often hears professors complain that they interview at length with a reporter only to have a sentence-or-two-long quote appear in the final story. Have you encountered this challenge in your own work, or have you heard from colleagues about this?

JWJ: Once upon a time, academics might have held the media at arm's length, but these days as the distinction between high and low culture is increasingly blurred, that's no longer the case.

In fact, many of my colleagues relish the opportunity to engage with the press. At times, admittedly, it's frustrating to speak at length and with subtlety to a reporter only to find one's pearls of wisdom variously mangled, twisted out of context and so radically truncated that you come off sounding like a drunken sailor. Still, it's a risk well worth taking.
...continue reading "Moving Forward"

I was casting about for a couple of food-related posters with which to decorate the kitchen at 2142 G Street, home to the Program in Judaic Studies, when I stumbled across a number of advertisements that touted the merits of oranges from Israel and, by extension, those of Zionism as well.

Dating from the era of the yishuv or, in some instances, from the early days of the state, some promotional gambits were sweet and sappy, like the fruit itself. "Visit Palestine. See Ancient Beauty Revived," trilled a poster produced by the Tourist Office of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, which featured a trio of beautifully rounded oranges adorned by a crown of sparkling white orange blossoms.

Other posters, mixing their metaphors right and left, drew both on Orientalist imagery and the modern preoccupation with physical well-being. Summoning the "genie of Jaffa," who magically materialized from the inside of a Jaffa orange, this advertisement also summoned up the potent word "vitamins," and with it, the promise of good health.

Photographers, too, were beguiled by the potential of the orange and took countless shots of Jewish settlers cultivating the citrus fruit through the most modern methods of irrigation and mechanized farming. They also trained their sights and their cameras on Arab orange growers, many of them from Jaffa, sharply contrasting their traditional methods of farming and distribution with those practiced by the yishuvniks.

Many of these archival images appear in Eyal Sivan's new documentary, Jaffa: The Orange's Clockwork, which explores what happened to the Palestinian population of orange groves and to those who had for years carefully tended to them once the State of Israel came into being and oranges became one of the country's leading exports. It's not a happy story. If, for the Israelis, the orange spoke of possibility, for the Palestinians, it spoke of loss.

Ultimately, Israelis and Palestinians alike freighted the humble orange with profound symbolic importance, linking it to two conflicting national narratives. Along the way, the orange, bursting with juice and color, became a veritable hot potato.

Image: Orange trees loaded with fruit in an orchard, Matson Photo Service. Source: LOC.

There's something about the sea that captivates. Perhaps it's the play of light on the water's surface or the inexorability of its motions: back and forth, back and forth, it goes. Whatever the reasons, the sea beckons. Its hold on us is even more irresistible when joined to rituals such as tashlich, the symbolic casting of our sins into the water, an activity that is as much a part of the Rosh Hashana repertoire of extra-synagogal things to do as eating a new fruit or dousing it with honey.

Little wonder, then, that over the years tashlich has held its own.

Wherever Jews lived -- in England, France, the United States, Turkey or India -- they could be found on the first day of the Jewish New Year, standing by a body of water, be it ocean, river, lake, stream, pond or creek. Some clutched clumps of bread in their hands, which they then throw into the current: away, away with our wrongdoings!

Others, like the Bene-Israel, made use of a small pamphlet, The Remission of Vows and the Prayer Offered on the Sea Shore.

Published in Bombay in 1864 by the Bene-Israel Improvement Society, probably as a fundraising device, this humble, 20-page compendium -- another one of the Kiev Collection's treasures -- contains all manner of prayers. Most of them would be familiar to those of us who know our way around the mahzor, the liturgical text used on Rosh Hashana -- familiar, that is, if we could read Marathi.

With the exception of the title page and the frontispiece -- which, in a show of typographic derring-do, featured seven different kinds of English-language fonts, and the occasional appearance of Hebrew, whose hand-set aleph tilts mischievously to the right -- the entire text is written in this ancient Indian language.

Of a different order, but equally compelling, is Tashlich at Turtle Rock, a recently published children's book by Susan Schnur and Anna Schnur-Fishman.

Intended for youngsters between the ages of five and nine, it links the modern conventions of the adventure yarn to those of the ancient ritual, heartening its readers along the way.

From the shores of the Arabian Sea to a creek at Turtle Rock, from the mid-19th century on through the 21st century, Jewish life ebbs and flows.

Image credit: Kiev Collection.


Shulkhn Arukh. Venice, 1565. Credit: Kestenbaum & Company Auctioneers, New York. Link.

I sometimes wonder what the codifier of the Shulkhn Arukh (The Set Table), that 16th century compendium of traditional Jewish ritual practice, might make of American Jewry.

This, after all, is a community whose members have perfected ‘kosher-style cuisine,’ while ignoring the strictures of kashruth, and who’ve reduced the 25 hour Sabbath to a nocturnal experience: the Friday night “oneg” at synagogue.

And that’s just the half of it. Earlier in the 20th century, contemporary critics were so alarmed by the idiosyncratic nature of Jewish ritual behavior that they worried lest shared norms and practices disappear entirely. In the United States, it was said, every Jew carried his own Shulkhn Arukh.

Then again, this is also a community whose members have come up with a wide range of ritual innovations that enhance rather than minimize tradition. Having just attended the simchat bat of my grand niece, I would certainly add that ritual practice, which has become de rigueur in Orthodox as well as in Reform circles, to the list. Topping it would be the bat mitzvah, a ritual innovation of postwar America and now one so firmly rooted it’s hard to imagine Jewish life without it.

This ongoing tug of war (or maybe it’s just a tussle) between tradition and innovation keeps sociologists and sermonizers scratching their heads. It keeps the rest of us wondering, too.

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Earlier today, while riding the Metro, I overheard the following mother-daughter conversation:

Mother: "Do you remember, dear, who was the very first president to live in the White House?"

Daughter: "Yeah. John-something-or-other."

Who says history isn't alive and well in the U.S.?

Image: The first U.S. president to live in the White House. Source: Wikipedia.

For centuries, taking to the road has been the stuff of grand adventure and equally grand literature. From Benjamin of Tudela's 12th century Book of Travels to Jack Kerouac's 1957 On the Road, travel has been bound up with freedom and an enhanced sense of self.

But what if travel turned out to be more a matter of constraint, of diminished expectations, than of affirmation?

Consider the experience of kosher-keeping Jews in America of the early 1900s, at a time when kosher food was hard to come by. For them, travelling throughout the United States was surely no picnic.

To ensure that those American Jews who observed the dietary laws at home could maintain them while on the road as well, the United Synagogue of America published a pocket-sized compendium listing those venues where a good kosher meal could be had. Its Directory of Kosher Hotels, Boarding Houses and Restaurants in the United States (1919) provided a detailed list of "racial restaurants" where America's Jews could find a ready welcome and an ample menu.

For African Americans, in turn, the pleasures of travel in the United States were mitigated not by the dictates of religion but by the cruelties of racial prejudice, which severely hampered their freedom of movement. By supplying a list of hotels and "tourist homes" where African American travelers might safely rest their heads, The Negro Motorist Green Book (1936) held the world at bay.

As much a form of travel literature as Kerouac's salute or Benjamin of Tudela's picaresque tales, this text is the subject of a new play, The Green Book, which will be given a staged reading in Washington, D.C., next month, under the aegis of Theatre J and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

With my students in tow, I hope to be on hand for that event. And who knows? Perhaps it'll even give rise to a brand new course.

Images: Benjamin of Tudela in the Sahara, in the 12th century. Engraving by Dumouza, 19th century. Source: Wikipedia. And a highway view from creative commons licensed Flickr content.

Just when you think you've seen it all, along comes a document or a song or a photograph or a book that greatly enlarges your frame of reference and ratchets up your appreciation for the cultural patrimony of the Jews.

This happened to me the other day when I came across Masa ha-dag, a children’s book of the 1920s that recounted in Hebrew the far-flung adventures of a fish (pictured).

One of the treasures of GW’s Kiev Collection, it had what my grandmother would call, in Yiddish, ale mayles -- all the right virtues or perquisites.

For one thing, the book was published in both Berlin and Jerusalem, underscoring the global reach of Jewish culture during the interwar years. For another, it boasted a sterling array of contributors: its Hebrew translator was Hayim Nachman Bialik, the preeminent Hebrew poet of his day, and its illustrator was Martha Seidmann-Freud, a leading Berlin book artist who preferred to go by the name ‘Tom,’ and whose uncle was none other than Sigmund Freud.

If that’s not enough to whet your appetite, there’s more: the book contains the most eye-catching, luscious illustrations I’ve seen in quite some time. Its palette of warm pinks and greens and yellows, much less its animated line drawings, puts you in mind of a time when all things seemed possible.

The start of a new semester, the advent of the Jewish New Year and the debut of a blog. In this instance, as in so many others characteristic of the modern Jewish experience, tradition -- Jewish learning -- receives a new lease on life, thanks to its encounter with the latest technology.

Much the same could be said of yet another Jewish cultural institution: shana tovas, Jewish New Year cards.

An invention of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these beribboned and beflowered creations, replete with accordion pleats and pop-out features, were made possible by harnessing the popular art of the chromolithograph and the engine of mass publishing to the age-old custom of wishing one’s relatives, friends and neighbors a sweet new year.

As you can see from this sampling of shana tovas from the Bernice and Harry Kramer Collection of the National Yiddish Book Center (PDF file), these newfangled creations enlivened the rhythm of Jewish life. Here’s hoping our blog will do the same.

Images of shana tovas: courtesy of the National Yiddish Book Center. More images after the jump.
...continue reading "A bundle of beginnings"

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