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Having had the not-so-good fortune to experience two snowstorms within the course of three days, first in D.C. and then in N.Y., I thoroughly enjoyed the balmy weather I had the good luck to experience over Spring Break while visiting Palo Alto, where I had gone to deliver a series of talks at Stanford.

Palm tree
Flickr/Tom Henderson
When not holding forth or taking a side trip to glorious San Francisco, I had the opportunity to sit outside without a hat, gloves or a heavy overcoat: one of life’s simple pleasures. More splendid still was the opportunity to sit outdoors while lounging around a pool. Most of my fellow loungers were glued to their laptops, iPads or some other newfangled device, rarely lifting their heads from the screen to take in their surroundings. No surprise, there: after all, we were in that spangled neighborhood known as Silicon Valley.

But I couldn’t resist the temptation to slow down, to breathe deeply, to eschew the company of my laptop and to absorb the light, the bright and cheery flowers and the palm trees. In this, I was one with Isaac Bashevis Singer who years ago, in a 1948 article in the Jewish Daily Forward, extolled their many virtues. “The palm trees especially made a great impression on me,” he wrote of the time he spent in Miami Beach. They “created a mood in me, and maybe in other people, too.”

I’ve always loved Singer’s botanical observations. But from afar. This time around, in close proximity to palm trees which, the novelist related, “are like trees and not like trees,” I knew exactly what he meant.

There was an awful lot in Palo Alto to dazzle the senses and tickle the imagination, from the beauty of the Stanford campus and the intellectual bravura of its faculty and students to the seeming incongruity of the Palo Alto kollel.

But it was those palm trees that really held me rapt.

Ever since I first read John Kasson’s Amusing the Million, a vividly drawn historical account of Coney Island’s singular appeal as an urban “dreamland,” I’ve had a soft spot for that Brooklyn neighborhood, whose streets are called ‘Surf,’ and ‘Mermaid,’ and ‘Neptune.’ In this, I’m not alone. So, too, did Woody Allen, I.B. Singer, Molly Picon and Ric Burns.

Coney Island
Coney Island. Flickr/Sarah Ackerman
Woody Allen, for his part, set a hilarious scene in Annie Hall in the shadow of a Coney Island rollercoaster, while some of I.B. Singer’s literary imaginings took shape against the area’s penchant for spectacle, both natural and man-made. Molly Picon, in turn, sang buoyantly in Yiddish of one of Coney Island’s most celebrated amenities: the hot dog. Ric Burns trained his sights on the off-kilter, dreamy quality of one of America’s most famous playgrounds, especially in its electrifying late 19th and early 20th century incarnation, giving rise to his very first documentary, Coney Island.

More recently, the Coney Island History Project was established in 2004 to collect and preserve the stories of people who not only visited Coney Island on occasion but also called it home. Appropriately enough, it set up a portable recording booth on the boardwalk to capture these memories.

Little by little, the Coney Island History Project began to collect stuff, too -- maps, photographs, steeplechase horses and the memorabilia of bath houses where swimsuits could be rented for the day. Before long it created a museum all its own, first under the Cyclone rollercoaster and then, about a year ago, relocating to a space under the entrance to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. Where else?!

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the museum suffered considerable water damage, imperiling its well-being. Although its oral history collections are safe and sound, available online and at Brooklyn College’s Special Collections and Archives, some of the museum’s artifacts have been lost or damaged; the space housing these vernacular treasures has been adversely affected as well.

Still, the Coney Island History Project soldiers on, assembling the latest round of stories, ca. 2012, from the land of Mermaid and Surf Avenues.

Entrance to Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida
Holy Land Experience, Orlando, Fla. Flickr/Malcolm Logan
The news that members of the Isaac Bashevis Singer Association of Bilgoraj intend to build a replica of the Western Wall at the site of the Polish town’s Jewish cemetery undoubtedly raised an eyebrow or two.

Coming on the heels of an announcement that the International Pro-Life Memorial and National Life Center is also planning to build a “full-size” replica of the Western Wall -– and in Kansas, no less -- it certainly raised mine, prompting me to think about the practice –- and value -- of authenticity in the 21st century.

Amid the hammer of postmodernism and the juggernaut of digital technology, both of which have altered the meaning of reality, does anyone care about authenticity anymore, especially when it comes to the primacy of place?

I suspect not. When we can recreate the Western Wall in Poland or in the U.S. heartland, encounter the glories of Venice in Las Vegas, engage with the spiritual force of 770 Eastern Parkway, headquarters of the Lubavitcher Hasidim, in a town outside of Tel Aviv, and walk in the footsteps of Jesus at the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Fla., why bother with authenticity? Who needs it?

Well, I do. Call me old-fashioned but if I’m going to have an honest-to-goodness religious experience, I’d much prefer to have it in a place made sacred by history and geography instead of one that has been willed into being.

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