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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 had big plans for winter break, which I was spending at home, in the Big Apple. Thoughts of enjoying the sights on Fifth Avenue, taking in a couple of recently released movies, visiting a number of highly publicized exhibitions and filling my belly at celebrated restaurants danced like sugarplums in my head.
It was not to be. Everywhere I turned, there was someone else ahead of me, or, more to the point, multiple someone elses. The movies I had wanted to see were sold out; the exhibitions I looked forward to relishing were so dense, so crowded, with visitors you couldn’t get close enough to the paintings or the display cases to make out what all the fuss was about and the city’s major thoroughfares, subways and buses were so thronged you could barely move. As for securing a restaurant reservation, never mind.
“Standing around is simultaneously boring and one of the happiest, most poignant things I’ve ever done with monotony,” Morris writes, linking stasis to the power of anticipation. Much of what he describes has to do with the particularities of African-American history, noting that “building waiting into the experience feels right for a place that tells the story of a people who’ve had to wait for everything else.”
You could also apply Morris’s insight about the resonance of anticipation to other, less fraught, circumstances in which that emotion reigns supreme: the start of a new academic term, say, or the release of a new book.
Both await. This term, I’ll be teaching two seminars. One is an undergrad history course that explores the impact of crisis and controversy on American Jewry’s sense of itself. The other, a graduate course called “Multiple Lives,” explores the life-cycle of celebrated Jewish cultural phenomena that range from the dybbuk and the golem to Fiddler on the Roof and the Borscht Belt.
Also in the wings is my brand new book. Titled Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments, it explores the ways in which the ancient biblical text imprinted itself on the modern American imagination. You’ll be hearing more about the book in the weeks preceding its release, which is scheduled for the very first of May.
Sometimes, an academic semester seems to drag on and on; at other moments, it zips by in a flash. Happily, Fall 2016 fell into the latter category. It moved at a fast clip, which was somewhat surprising given the intellectual ambitions of my two courses. One was an undergraduate seminar called “Pious Forgeries” that explored a raft of celebrated textual and artifactual fabrications from the ancient Near East on into the United States of the 19th century and then Israel of the 21st; the other was a graduate seminar that took the measure of contemporary Jewish life in all of its bewildering variegatedness. Both trafficked in detail, heaps of it.
At no point in the semester, though, did I feel that the students had lost their way. On the contrary. Both the undergraduates and the graduate students seemed to relish the complex array of issues that were brought to bear: issues of identity, belonging, improvisation, accountability and faith, the weight of the past. Over the course of the term, they grew bolder, more confident in their ability to parse a text, to keep conversation afloat, to value one another’s ideas.
We ended on a good note, too. In our last class together, the undergraduates were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History where, among other things, we peeked inside a laboratory given over to the study of ancient bones, held in our hands both authentic and fraudulent pieces of ancient statuary and learned what it takes professionally to distinguish one from the another. The vastness of the museum, whose stairwells alone were enough to take one’s breath away, added to the expansiveness of the experience.
Although the graduate students didn’t travel too far afield, they had an opportunity to present their final projects amid the high spirits and good eats of a potluck supper. The display of intellectual camaraderie was heartening and uplifting -- and the food wasn’t too shabby, either.
All in all, a good run….But in this instance, as in so many others, term limits do come in handy. ‘Best to end before the intellectual momentum gives out. Besides, a new semester with its own set of challenges awaits.
Mosaic introduces the students to the wealth of institutional and cultural resources they’ll be drawing upon in the course of their training. This year, we attended a rehearsal of a play at Theater J and looked on as its set was assembled, bit by bit. We ventured into the vault where Folkways stores its historic recordings; spent time in the company of the director of GW’s Textile Museum as he escorted us around the building; walked about downtown D.C. in search of its Jewish roots under the direction of a recent graduate of the Program, who proudly -- and most ably -- strutted his stuff; and engaged in honest and searching conversation about the pull and push of community with two of Sixth & I’s leading lights.
The more I think about it, the more I’ve come to the realization that Mosaic is not only good for the students; it’s good for my colleagues and me, too. After a summer away, it gently eases us back into the rhythms of teaching. Thanks to Mosaic, we have an opportunity to familiarize ourselves with our students, and they with us, in an easy and relaxed setting, before settling into the more taxing business at hand. Mosaic is experiential education at its very best.
At some point in the proceedings, I told the students that if they found that their feet hurt and their head ached, Mosaic had done right by them. And so it has. If their reflection pieces are any indication, the students got a lot out of these two days, learning the ropes and the lingo while forming new friendships.
As for me, my feet throb and my head is swimming. More to the point, I can’t wait to get back into the classroom.
Building a new academic program ain’t easy. There are forms to fill out, deans to convince, donors to cultivate and students to recruit. The number of hoops you have to jump through before you get off the ground, much less succeed, can daunt and discourage even the most energetic and determined of souls.
What lifts the spirit and sustains it is the opportunity to try one’s hand at something novel: to stretch. It’s not quite the same thing as seizing the brass ring, but it comes awfully close. For me, that opportunity took the form of SymPop.
Inspired by the contemporary pop-up phenomenon as well as by the age-old notion of a symposium, I hit on the idea of mixing up both by bringing together a highly select (dare I say ‘curated,’ the word du jour) assemblage of artists and educators to spend an immersive 24 hours in one another’s company. We would eat together, cook together, learn from one another and collaborate -- all with an eye towards enriching one another as well as the Jewish communal landscape.
So many ideas sound marvelous on paper, but land with a thud when it comes to actualizing them. Not SymPop. Thanks to its participants, who were generous, open, spirited and, above all, game, what might have been yet another dutiful exercise in professional development took flight. Deploying all manner of stuff -- paper, scissors, smartphones, musical instruments, images, grids, flowers, their feet, pots & pans -- as well as one another, they buzzed with ideas, infusing Jewish texts, practices, places, foodways and sounds with newfound sparkle and depth.
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the SymPopniks had to say when asked to come up with a slew of adjectives and nouns to describe their experience. First the adjectives: “Awesome, inspiring, thoughtful, fun, satisfying.” Now, the nouns: “sharing, connections, sprouting, whole-making, gratitude, trust.”
Now that the Jewish holidays have come and gone, it’s time to start thinking about what lies ahead. In the event that graduate school is in your future -- or that of someone you know -- I hope you might give some thought to enrolling in an exciting new program at GW: the M.A. in Jewish Cultural Arts.
You’ll forgive me for sounding like a proud parent, or, worse still, like a shameless self-promoter, when I sing the praises of this enterprise, now in its second year. It’s the real deal. Taking advantage of everything that D.C. has to offer -- smart and savvy people, gratifying internships and culture, culture, culture just about everywhere you turn -- the M.A. in Jewish Cultural Arts makes learning both fun and meaningful. Better yet, the program sees to it that its students shine.
Who can ask for anything more?
Send us your sons and daughters, your grandchildren, your nieces and nephews as well as your neighbor’s kids.
Every week brings with it an often unwieldy barrage of experiences, encounters, observations and remarks. At its conclusion, I like to retrieve one encounter or, better yet, one remark, that sums things up. This week’s candidate: “Wear a sweater.”
As it happens, the reception area in which the administrative assistant for the Program in Judaic Studies sits is unusually chilly. Adjacent to the building’s entrance, it is constantly assailed by drafts as a steady stream of students march in and out, often neglecting to close the front door. It doesn’t help matters that the heating in that part of the building is erratic, at best.
In an attempt to make said staff member, a most valuable member of the team, a little bit more comfortable, I bought a throw for her chair so that, when the temperature dropped, she could wrap herself in it (the throw, that is, not the chair). Pleased with this new purchase, which kept her body (and, most especially, her legs) warm, my admin submitted the receipt for the throw to the fiscal powers-that-be so that I could be reimbursed. So far, so good, no?
No. The story then takes a strange turn. The authorities declined to “allow” the reimbursement. It wasn’t that the item in question was too expensive: after all, it cost under $30. Rather, the expenditure was deemed an inappropriate one. Near as I can tell, the university’s financial gatekeepers defined the throw as a decorative object rather than a utilitarian one and ruled that such things were simply not reimbursable. In retrospect, I would have been better off defining the throw as a blanket, I suppose. But I get ahead of myself here.
This situation could not stand, said I to myself. It wasn’t the money; it was the principle. And so, I asked my admin to resubmit the form and, in the space marked “rationale,” to explain why the throw was a necessity, not an ornament.
Once again, the claim was rejected. This time, I took matters in hand and wrote directly to the fiscal powers-that-be, explaining at some length why the throw (I mean blanket) was necessary. Peppering my explanation with references to ‘efficiency’ and ‘congenial work environment,’ I thought I had made a really convincing case. I hadn’t.
Rejected for a third and probably final time, the claim for reimbursement came back with the following message: “Can’t your admin wear a sweater?” To which I wearily responded: She does and sometimes two, as well as a scarf.
I start the new academic term, which is right around the corner, with butterflies in my stomach. And yet, unlike the Sunday evenings before the Monday mornings of yesteryear when I experienced a similar sensation, this one is born of excitement, not anxiety.
Each semester brings with it a sense of possibility as my colleagues and I set about exposing our students to the fullness of the human condition and, concomitantly, of bringing out the best in them. Spring 2014 is no exception. The varied courses GW’s Program in Judaic Studies offers are designed to do just that.
Immersing our undergraduates in rabbinic thought and Jewish philosophy, the Jewish literatures of Latin America and the United States, Jewish women’s history and the history of the ghetto, to name just a few of our offerings, should make it abundantly clear that there’s so much more to Jewish education than Hebrew school.
Our public programs, which are open to the community, also make that point, expanding our intellectual as well as our geographical horizons. Over the next few months, East European Jewry looms especially large in our sights. For starters, Professor Marek Kucia, a sociologist from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, will be on campus in mid-March where, among other things, he’ll be delivering a talk on the Europeanization of Holocaust memory.
A week or so later, the Program’s annual Frieda Kobernick Fleischman Lecture will feature Jonathan Brent, the executive director of the YIVO Institute in New York, who will be speaking about his recent bibliographic adventures in Vilna, where thousands of once well-thumbed Jewish books remain, inert, on the shelves. Co-sponsored by and held at the Polish Embassy, Mr. Brent’s talk promises to affect both our intellect and our emotions.
This is as it ought to be. Judaic Studies, I’ve come to see, and hope you do, too, is not just a discipline or a field of study. It’s also a way of contemplating the world – and of emerging just a bit wiser for it.
GW is committed to digital accessibility. If you experience a barrier that affects your ability to access content on this page, let us know via the Accessibility Feedback Form.