As the semester draws to a close, I can’t help wondering how much of an impact the assigned readings, critical response papers, classroom discussions and final projects had on my students: Do they emerge from my classes with an expanded sense of life's challenges and possibilities? With a heightened awareness of the relationship between the past and the present? Do they leave with fire in their bellies?
To measure the effectiveness of our courses, the university mandates that our syllabi prominently feature a section called "learning objectives." But that rubric and its corollary, "assessment," doesn’t quite get at the heart of things; it's too clinical, too cold. What I'd like to know is what kind of imprint the study of Jewish history and culture leaves on my students.
Yes, that's right: 'imprint' -- a word that's both precise and fuzzy. An imprint leaves a tangible mark and yet something about it is indeterminate, open to interpretation.
An imprint, as a young Polish couple, Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar, knows all too well, haunts the imagination. An imprint, they've come to discover as they turn their artistic training to the making of contemporary Judaica, fires the imagination, too. Traveling to more than sixty cities throughout Poland and Ukraine, Czernek and Prugar look for what they evocatively call "mezuzah fossils," traces in the wood of a door frame -- a depression, say, or a silhouette -- of the traditional Jewish ritual object which, then, as now, renders a home a haym.
Vestiges of a once-vibrant presence, these indentations are easily overlooked; oftentimes, the aging, cracked wooden doorposts that once contained them have been discarded, cast atop a junk pile. But Czernek and Prugar not only take note, photographing the site and recording its address; they also take an imprint, preserving its outline in plaster, silicon and wax. And from that amalgam, they then fashion a brand new mezuzah out of bronze, a mezuzah that houses the words of the Shema as well as a reference to the place from whence it came.
A functional ritual object as well as an intimately-scaled memorial, these "trace-based mezuzot," as Czernek and Prugar put it, connect the past with the present in a way that imprints them both on your doorpost and mine.