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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.

This week marked the passing of Stephen Birmingham, the author of the 1967 best-seller, Our Crowd, an account of the German Jewish elite in America. With its "frothy" tales of the rich and famous within the American Jewish community, Birmingham’s book, as one reviewer put it, fell somewhere between "social history and elevated tattletale," generating lots of interest among those who fancied both.

Jacob Schiff (seated, bottom right with white mustache and beard) and family. Source: New York Public Library
Jacob Schiff and his extended family figured prominently in "Our Crowd." Source: NYPL

A novelist before he turned to history, Birmingham had a keen eye for the telling detail and the revealing anecdote. Story-telling rather than scholarship was his métier, prompting several prominent members of the academy to take him to task. Writing in Commentary, Marshall Sklare, the Brandeis University sociologist, publicly chided Birmingham for the casual way in which he documented his findings -- his footnotes left a lot to be desired -- as well as for his limitations in wrestling with the "serious implications of his material." Still, Birmingham's subject, the sociologist grudgingly conceded, was "certainly ripe for exploitation."

Sklare was right about that. Even so, it’s been nearly 50 years since Our Crowd first saw the light of day and near as I can make out, the book has yet to be superseded or seriously challenged. Perhaps we're due for another look. Any takers?

In the meantime, Birmingham’s lavishly detailed account of the tightly knit culture of America’s German-Jewish elite holds its own. That his book also imprinted the words, “our crowd,” on the contemporary Jewish imagination is an accomplishment to which few writers can lay claim.

These days, we’re apt to pride ourselves on our communicative abilities, pointing to our continuous tweeting and texting. I don’t doubt for a nano-second that multiple and meaningful forms of exchange do take place, but honest-to-goodness conversation ain’t among them. I mean the old-fashioned kind of give-and-take, the sustained, lively, impromptu, generative discussion that entails two or more people actually talking to one another, face to face and with words, intonations and physical gestures.

Last Juan Munoz. Conversation Piece (1994-5). Flickr/cliff1066
Last Juan Munoz. Conversation Piece (1994-5). Flickr/cliff1066

You had only to be in the crowded room last week, when GW commemorated the centennial of Leo Frank’s lynching, to see for yourself the evocative power of conversation. Moderated by Blake Morant, the Dean of GW Law, “Reckoning with the Ghosts of Leo Frank,” as this event was called, featured David Kendall, the renowned Washington lawyer, and Steve Oney, author of the And the Dead Shall Rise, the definitive account of this tragic moment in American history.

The rise and fall of their voices held the audience spellbound, as did the high intelligence with which they addressed the many complicated issues at hand. Bringing passion and urgency to the proceedings as well as smarts, the three participants made history and the law come alive.

The same thing happened when, a few days later, Steve Oney visited my undergraduate seminar in American Jewish history. I’m not exactly sure what it was -- his nonpareil descriptive powers, his easy interaction with the students or a combination of the two -- but something about Mr. Oney’s presence and voice not only had everyone mesmerized but encouraged their participation as well.

Conversation, as many of us discovered or rediscovered this past week, is good for the soul.

Speaking of which, you may have noticed that my posts have not been as forthcoming as they usually are. It’s not that I’ve run out of things to say, heaven forfend. It’s that a series of seemingly intractable digital snafus have made a hash of things. Here’s hoping that you’ll bear with me, and the IT boys, as we seek a solution.

In our age of digitized this, that and the other thing, I often wonder -- and worry -- about the kinds of sources that will be available to future generations. What will become of history, as we know it? Will the chroniclers of the 21st century have materials to draw on as they take the measure of American Jewish life?

Cel-ray. Flickr/jojomelons

If this week was any indication, there’s little cause for concern. American Jewish history is kept alive and well and nourished by those in the food business, from Russ & Daughters in New York to DGS Delicatessen in D.C.

To set the bar high (yes, bad pun intended), consider the New Yorker, which just published a piece about the debut of Russ & Daughters Cafe, whose décor as well as bill of fare celebrates the Lower East Side of yesteryear. "The Café is a master class in how to court both the old and the new, imbued with a hard-earned air of authority and gorgeously designed to pay detailed homage to Russ & Daughters’ history,” the magazine noted admiringly.

And then, on the heels of the New Yorker article, came word, courtesy of a former student, of the latest offering from DGS Delicatessen in D.C.: Delicatessen After Dark, which this past week paid its own version of homage to the summer resorts of the Catskills, or more to the point, to the steady round of alcoholic libations its Jewish patrons reportedly imbibed while around the pool, in the dining room and late at night while laughing away at the comic antics of aspiring performers. “Delicatessen After Dark,” its website explains, “is a celebration of the new delicatessen drinking culture inspired by our grandparents’ long nights in Lower East Side taverns, getaways to Florida and jazzy escapades to the Catskills.”

Drinking culture? I was under the impression that our ancestors were more inclined towards quaffing seltzer and variously flavored sodas, among them black cherry, cream and Cel-Ray tonic than spirits.

But no matter. Future generations, curious about the everyday lives of their forbears, can now look to restaurants and their proprietors for the details. They’re the ones, after all, who are most zealously tending to the flame of history.

What a difference a year makes. Last autumn, New York City was all agog at the prospect of “Sukkah City” taking root in Union Square Park. Eleven different designs of an outdoor hut, the fruits of an international design competition, were scattered around the perimeter of the park, drawing thousands of visitors and generating considerable press, all of it favorable.

Sukkah City
Sukkah City, 2010. Flickr/SpecialKRB
But this fall, in striking contrast, an attempt to install a sukkah in nearby TriBeCa’s Duane Park by a local Chabad rabbi and his wife kicked up quite a rumpus of disapproval.

In lieu of a chorus of hosannas, of sprightly talk about open source tradition and artistic innovation, the dominant register was of negativity and resistance. Citing the First Amendment, opponents of the sukkah claimed that the structure ran the risk of violating the separation of church and state. “I don’t want to encourage having all sorts of religious things in our public parks,” stated a neighborhood resident.

Perhaps it was too much to hope that “Sukkah City” might betoken a sea change in the public’s embrace of the ancient ritual structure. After all, for much of their history, urban American Jews found it much too difficult to erect a sukkah of their own, preferring to rely on that of their local synagogue.

When American Jews first lived in tenements, there was hardly any room for a sukkah, save for an uncongenial fire escape. Later still, when upwardly mobile American Jews moved to well-equipped apartment houses, erecting a sukkah clashed too strenuously with their newly acquired bourgeois norms of discretion and politesse. And these days, amid heightened concern about the establishment of religion, a public sukkah continues to be somewhat of a shaky proposition.

Still, as things turned out, there is room for common ground. Happily, the residents of TriBeCa secured an alternative venue for the Chabad sukkah. Instead of nesting in a public space, it found a temporary home on an empty lot, the private property of a local real estate company with a strong sense of neighborliness.

Traipsing around the Lower East Side on a beastly hot summer day, I had lots of company. The streets were filled with tourists, shoppers and the cool cats who now call that downtown neighborhood their home. Most visitors, I suspect, were in search of the fabled hipster haven that the Lower East Side has become of late. As for me, I was in search of history.

Lower East Side tenement fire escapes
Fire escapes on the Lower East Side near the Tenement Museum. Flickr/manyhighways.
It’s hard to find. The Lower East Side, that “great ghetto” of the late 19th and early 20th century, is now a living and breathing palimpsest of past and present. Sleek glass condominiums nestle, cheek by jowl, with the area’s characteristic brick tenements, while Katz’s Delicatessen, whose stock in trade is a hot pastrami sandwich, is just yards away from il laboratio del gelato, a bright, clean, laboratory-like space that purveys all manner of gelati, from pink pepper tarragon to thai chili chocolate.

Yes, the streets are still filled with signs that dangle in the wind from a metal chain. That’s not something you see too much of uptown. But they’re no longer hand-lettered or written in Yiddish and Hebrew. Instead, crisp, stylish graphics in English beckon passersby.

The multi-layers that constitute the Lower East Side put me in mind of an equally layered short story, “A Cycle of Manhattan,” that was first published in 1919, when that one square mile of downtown real estate was bursting at its seams with Jewish immigrants. Written by Thyra Samter Winslow, one of the bright young things of the interwar years, whom no one reads any more (but should), the story chronicles the deracination of an immigrant family.

Starting out in a New York tenement neighborhood as the Rosenheimers, they steadily make their way out of the ghetto. By the time they reach Riverside Drive, they have jettisoned their past and acquired a new name – Ross – in the process. Their son, an artist, rejects the bourgeois comforts and conceits of his parents. In search of authenticity and truth, he ends up living in a downtown tenement. But not in any old downtown tenement. In a wonderful denouement, this one turns out to be the very same tenement which his parents and grandparents had inhabited when they first arrived in America.

The life cycle of that fictional family, and doubtless that of their real life counterparts, parallels the life cycle of the city. And still does.

In New York, change is the coin of the realm. Nothing remains intact or in one place for very long. Businesses come and go, neighborhoods rise and fall, synagogues and churches shutter their doors and move away.

Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun
Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun. Source: Wikipedia
But not Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (or “KJ,” as it’s commonly called), a stalwart and true urban presence on East 85th Street since 1902.

A raging fire claimed the life of its dignified limestone and brick building last night, leaving me, along with thousands of New Yorkers, with an acute sense of loss.

While I’ve attended services on occasion, my relationship to KJ happens to be professional rather than personal. Years ago, I wrote a book about modern Orthodox Jewry in which the history of the congregation figures prominently. One of the book’s chapters, in fact, contains a description of the building’s cornerstone-laying ceremony, which took place 109 years ago.

Spirits ran high that day, the sources tell us in what now makes for painful reading. There was a band and bunting and the usual complement of official dignitaries. A “vast concourse of Jewish citizens” also turned out to participate in the proceedings. Everyone on hand agreed that Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun was the “most modern and beautiful orthodox synagogue in New York.”

May it rise again.

Multiple ties bind this blog and the university that hosts it to George Washington. We proudly take our name and many of our cues from him.

George Washington, Public Garden, Boston, Mass.
George Washington, Public Garden, Boston, Mass. Flickr/Eric Hatch
Under the circumstances, then, fans of the first president of the United States would do well to consult the June 24 issue of The Forward, which features both an editorial and a front-page article about the fate of the famous 1790 letter assuring the Jews of Newport of religious liberty.

As it turns out, this foundational document, a staple of American Jewry’s political and civic identity, currently reposes in a Maryland storage facility, where it’s kept under wraps. “What a loss!” The Forward declares, coming down hard in favor of publicly displaying the text.

At a time when simulacra have taken the place of the real thing, and historical literacy is increasingly an artifact of the past, taking the measure of an 18th century text with our own eyes is an experience to be cherished.

Now that grades have been submitted, the seniors have graduated and cap and gown have been returned to the back of the closet, it’s time to take stock of what the Program in Judaic Studies has accomplished over the course of the past academic year.

Whether exploring the millennial history of Jerusalem, taking the measure of Israeli culture, learning about the making of Jewish books, reckoning with the American Jewish experience and the challenges of memory or meeting weekly with contemporary Jewish writers, our classes have deepened our students’ critical encounter with the richness and complexity of Jewish arts and letters, geopolitics and philosophy.

report card
Flickr/AJ Cann
The faculty, too, has been energized by a wide array of informal, work-in-process presentations given each month by its colleagues on topics that encompassed art, politics and the self, the ancient Near East, medieval England, late 19th century Germany and contemporary Latin America.

Public programs, meanwhile, have enlarged our audience as well as our opportunities for partnerships with neighboring institutions. From the Cedar Film Retrospective, which was held on campus as well as at the D.C.-JCC, to “Tough Guys,” a cooperative venture with American University and the Foundation for Jewish Culture; from the annual Fleischman Lecture at The Phillips Collection to a behind-the-scenes tour of the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, the Program in Judaic Studies has made a point of extending its reach into the community at large.

As we close the books on this academic year, we look forward to expanding our repertoire of courses and public events for the fall term. For starters, GW will welcome its very first Schusterman Visiting Artist from Israel -- Sharon Ya’ari is his name -- who will offer a very special honors course, “Eye on Israel: Photography of the Middle East,” as well as deliver a public talk hosted by the Department of Fine Arts and Art History.
...continue reading "Report card"

There aren’t too many novels that can lay claim to a second, much less a third, lease on life as both a film and a play, especially when the subject at hand has to do with religion and faith. But The Chosen, Chaim Potok’s novel of Orthodox Jewish life in Brooklyn during the waning years of the 1940s, has, of late, scored a home run.

baseball glove
Flickr/Brock G

These days, it takes the form of a critically acclaimed play which, thanks to a creative partnership between Theater J and Arena Stage, can be seen at the latter’s 800-seat Fichandler Theatre downtown.

Nearly 30 years earlier, The Chosen, its palette awash in brown and ochre, was brought to the silver screen, where the likes of Maximillian Schell and Rod Steiger inhabited the roles of a modern Orthodox Jew and a Hasidic rebbe, respectively. The film’s opening scene -- a baseball game between yeshiva boys and their Hasidic counterparts -- remains as powerful today as it first did a generation ago.

And before that, the novel made its debut in 1967. Initial reviews were lukewarm and tepid.

Eliot Fremont-Smith, writing in The New York Times, called the book “thematically overstuffed and dramatically undernourished,” adding, snippily, that its dramatic arc had been reached by page 37. (He subsequently changed his mind about the book, admitting that his initial judgment had been too hasty.)

But the reading public took to The Chosen with great and immediate relish and within a few months’ time, this revelatory coming of age story had become a runaway best-seller, first in cloth and then in paperback. The novel, related its publisher with unbridled glee, “is one of the happiest phenomena in recent publishing history,” noting that it “rings just as true in Iowa as in Brooklyn.”

An exercise in de-mystification, a study in friendship, a tale of fathers and sons – all these are possible explanations for the book’s hold on the American imagination. Whatever the reason, The Chosen is well worth another look.

But hurry: the play, followed by a talk-back between yours truly and Ari Roth, the artistic director of Theater J, is scheduled to close next Sunday.

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