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This article, which first appeared in the Forward's blog The Arty Semite, is part of a cross-posting partnership with the Forward.

By Menachem Wecker

Though about half of the 16 artists in the current show at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C., are Jewish, curators Eloise Corr Danch and David Zuckerman unabashedly admit there is nothing Jewish about the exhibit, beyond the Jewish venue.

In the catalog to “I’ve Gone Looking for that Feeling Everywhere: An Exhibition of Emerging Artists,” which hangs through Nov. 2, the curators identify “an insistent urge to examine and discover” as a thematic tie-that-binds.

Orrery courtesy of Sam Zuckerman

“This exhibition celebrates the idea of art as the product of (or byproduct) of that curiosity, of the artists’ need to engage their surroundings and indulge their fascinations,” they write, insisting the art is “visceral, emotional, curious, playful,” rather than “steeped in concept or theory.”

In fact, not only do the curators say there isn’t even anything Jewish, or even spiritual, about the works in the show — though they refer in their statement to “the restless yearning spirit that drives the action” — but the title derives from a Denis Johnson novel, Jesus’ Son, about a drifter.

But Sam Zuckerman, David’s cousin, says his contribution to the show — which is in fact the first work of art he has ever made — has at least a partial Jewish component.

...continue reading "A gadget for Gods and days"

Who among us doesn't have a relative whose name was changed at Ellis Island? Rare, indeed, is the American Jew whose surname is the same as that of his or her European and Israeli cousins. Normative rather than exceptional, the immigrant's acquisition of a new name seems to be as American a phenomenon as, well, apple pie.

But now, in an article published by Dara Horn in Azure magazine, we're told that the changing-of-the-name is itself a bube mayse, an urban legend, a fabrication of the immigrant mind. It simply didn't happen, or, if it did, these flights of onomastic invention took place well before Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe even came to the New World. By Horn's lights, name change had little, if anything, to do with tone deaf inspectors at Ellis Island.

"Ellis Island Medical Exam." Flickr creative commons photo by jjprojects.

In an imaginative and extended riff, Horn not only denies the historicity of name changing but also claims that the whole thing, from start to finish, is a tall tale of expiation, projection and apology. Having so readily turned their backs on the Old World in their eagerness to become one with the New, Jewish immigrants, she claims, made the whole thing up. It's all one big mea culpa for our sins.

"By inventing a story that depicts their name change as beyond their control ... these immigrants sent a powerful message to future generations: I did not shed my Jewish identity intentionally. And despite the values of the country in which we are living I hope that you won't, either," she writes.

When I shared the latest news with my students, they were taken aback, even baffled. And not just baffled. Suddenly they were cast adrift, floating free of family stories that had once anchored them. Only a few days earlier, one of my students had written lovingly and at great length about how his great grandfather's name had been changed by an official at Ellis Island, and now he was being told that his forbear had made it all up. Who to believe? Dara Horn or grandpa?

The choice is not an easy one. Maybe it's easy for Horn to throw down the gauntlet, come what may. But where does that leave the rest of us who cherish the stories of how Smilensky became Smith, and Zabarsky became Zabar?

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