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I'm constantly encouraging my students to seek out new experiences, test their mettle and stretch. I don't often have an opportunity to practice what I preach -- things at my end have settled into a pretty predictable groove -- but last week, I was treated to a hefty dose of my own medicine. I found myself in a brand new setting -- a recording studio the size of a shoebox -- and staring down a set of equally new interpretive challenges. I was to pretend that I was standing in front of a series of museum objects and to chat away freely, as if in the company of good friends.

 In the Recording Studio
In the Recording Studio. Flickr/Carol VanHook

I have no trouble filling the air with the sound of my voice nor am I averse to my imagination going full tilt. All the same, in the course of the taping, which the Jewish Museum of New York had commissioned in order to add another voice, another layer of interpretation, to its exhibition, "Scenes from the Collection," I felt a little like Jimmy Stewart and his imaginary rabbit, Harvey.

It wasn't that I was pulling rabbits out of a hat, conjuring up things that didn't exist. The objects I had elected to talk about -- among them, a fanciful wooden pastry stamp, a lead Hanukkah lamp in the shape of miniature chairs, a chubby aluminum charity box with an ill-fitting lid -- were real enough: each one came with a history, a back story.

That was the easy part. The hard part was to hold forth convincingly on their appeal when all I had at my disposal -- and the listener's patience -- was a minute or two. Accustomed in the classroom and in print to the luxury of elaboration, I had now to work within the constraints of concision: to speak fast, but not too fast; to sound conversational and animated rather than didactic and flat; to induce in my audience a sense of connection and, above all, to do right by the objects.

As the taping wore on, I got better at it, more confident in my pacing and in my content, too, but before I knew it, my time in the studio was up. Already?! I hope I'll have another opportunity sometime soon to reprise my maiden sonic adventure.

In the meantime, here's to new challenges, be they acoustic, visual or somewhere in between.


Over winter break, I didn’t want for activity. There were people to see, films to screen and a wealth of exhibitions to behold, one of the most inventive of which was a modest but arresting show at the Jewish Museum called Collection Tableaux. Taking the form of four distinctive mediations -- in paint, paper, glass and fabric -- on the role of the table in Jewish life, the exhibition highlighted the connections between the material and the cultural dimensions of the Jewish experience.

Izhar Patkin, Salonière, 1998
Izhar Patkin, Salonière, 1998/Jewish Museum
I relished each of the artworks but, as a practicing historian, I took particular delight in Izhar Patkin’s “Salonnière,” a large scale, stenciled and framed collage of a fussy end table crowded with the kind of stuff one was likely to encounter in the determinedly bourgeois setting of a 19th century German Jewish home: books, bric-a-brac, a tea cup and other appurtenances of the cultured.

A closer look, however, disclosed that what was on display was studded with actual historical references. As the artist would have it, the table belonged to Dorothea von Schlegel, Moses Mendelssohn’s daughter who not only changed her name but her station in life by becoming a saloniste of the highest order. On its surface rested a couple of books, one of which, Florentin, she had penned. Slightly off-center, upsetting the balance, the elegant proportion, of things, was a rather unappealing and hulking porcelain figure of a monkey.

An object out of place, the monkey reflects an equally dislocating historical phenomenon: Frederick II’s insistence that the Jews under his domain -- Moses Mendelssohn, among them -- purchase second rate porcelain from his ailing factory, the Royal Porcelain Works, when finalizing a legal transaction such as marriage. Though an affront to both their newfound aesthetic sensibilities and hard won civic aspirations, the so-called judenporzellan was often passed down from generation to generation. Mendelsohn’s grand-daughter, for instance, recalls how her grandfather had acquired a “menagerie of monkeys, which his children later divided as memorabilia and which we in turn inherited from our parents. We keep them as a remembrance of the good old times,” she reportedly told a friend who, puzzled by their appearance in a home otherwise notable for its good taste, inquired after their origins.

Drawing on this and other accounts, as well as on the far reaches of his imagination, Patkin has given form and dimension to Jewish history. Thanks to his artful fusion of text and image, he has placed the past within reach. What an inspiration!

I’m hopeful that many young Jews will take their cue from Patkin, especially now that Tent: Encounters with Jewish Culture, the latest venture of the consistently innovative Yiddish Book Center, has become a reality.

Under the intellectually nimble and lively direction of Josh Lambert, Tent will be holding a series of week-long seminars over the next few months -- one on comedy, another on creative writing and a third on theater -- that enable Jewish twentysomethings to “connect their cultural enthusiasms with modern Jewish culture and history,” as Mr. Lambert would have it. Once the project takes flight, it’s anticipated that a wide array of Jewish organizations across the country will apply to Tent for support to establish cultural events of their own devising.

Culture, in all of its varied manifestations, is the conduit by which a new generation of Jews finds a place for itself at the table.

Stories about Jewish books don’t often appear in the news, but within the past few days there have been not one, but two, feature articles about them.

Isabelle Palatin/Flickr
The first piece took the form of a review by Edward Rothstein in the New York Times of an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York titled “Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries.”

Exulting in the 52 treasures on view, many of them illuminated Hebrew manuscripts and some that date as far back as the 11th century, the Times’ chief culture critic -- who will soon be visiting GW for a series of workshops and talks -- found much that pleased the eye, engaged the intellect, and buoyed the spirit.

The second piece is a study in contrast. Written by Paul Berger, it appeared on the front page of The Forward and took as its subject the recent decision by the American Jewish Committee to deaccession its once storied research library.

Its shelves filled with mimeographed reports, cassette tapes, and other items whose preciousness stemmed from their contemporaneity rather than their historicity or aesthetic appeal, the AJC’s Library was meant to be used rather than contemplated. Little wonder, then, that sadness suffuses Berger’s account, along with the merest whiff -- a frisson -- of something potentially scandalous.

But that’s not how I choose to read it. Instead, I prefer to juxtapose these two stories of two different collections with two entirely different outcomes and to read them as two halves of a cautionary tale: the fate of the Jewish book, whether grand or quotidian, resides with us.

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