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Like most of us, I look forward to 2015 with keen anticipation: So many museums to visit, performances to see, and articles to read. Strike that last bit; it’s just not true. Between the recent implosion at The New Republic and the spate of early retirements and firings at The New York Times, I’m not sure I’ll have much to read, come 2015.

New York Times
New York Times. Flickr/Kike Muñoz Beltrán

For years, I enjoyed making my way through TNR’s fabled “back of the book,” delighting in what its discerning contributors had to say about the latest title or exhibition or film. The magazine made me a culturally literate and engaged citizen of the world -- and a better professor, too. Time and again, I drew on its insights when preparing for a lecture or in casual conversation with colleagues and students.

The Times also left a big imprint on me. Between Joseph Berger’s wise and sensitively drawn human interest stories, Edward Rothstein’s incisive museological critiques, and Christopher Gray’s gimlet-eyed “Streetscapes,” I learned how to write and how to reckon with human foibles, big ideas and the built environment.

Their collective departure from the Times leaves me bereft. Who will I turn to for commentary on the variegated New York Jewish community? Bring to campus to reflect on the most recent developments within the museum world? Inspire me to take to the streets in search of an arresting architectural detail?

I’ll make do, of course, but one thing is certain. I’ll be none the wiser in 2015.


Remember the plaintive Pete Seeger song, Where Have All the Flowers Gone? In the wake of a recent research trip to the New York Public Library, I’m inclined to sing a similar song of lament about the fate of the book and call it Where Have All the Books Gone?

New York Public Library by Justin Brown
New York Public Library. Flickr/Justin Brown
The much-bruited about renovation of this storied library has been in the news a lot lately, generating considerable controversy along the way. Its champions insist that relocating millions of volumes to an off-site storage facility will result in a new and improved library, one that meets the challenges of the digital age head-on. Its detractors insist that’s a lot of hooey or, worse still, that the library’s plan sounds the death knell for serious scholarship.

Until now, I found myself in the middle of these two camps, cautiously adopting a wait-and-see attitude. But no more. So dreary, alienating and downright disheartening was this week’s visit to the New York Public Library that I now cast my lot with the naysayers.

It wasn’t that this grand institution was forlorn and abandoned. On the contrary. Throngs –- and I mean throngs –- of people walked its glorious halls, giving adjacent Times Square a run for its money. And the place, bedecked with lights, ribbons and greenery galore, was an absolute delight to behold.

Alas, the business at hand –- conducting research -– was something else again. In one division of the library, the distance between the reading room and the stacks is now so great that it takes an inordinately long amount of time just to obtain a book, let alone read it. In another division of the library –- the reference room, no less –- the shelves that once contained the standard reference tools I now needed were glaringly empty. Where did they go? When it came to their whereabouts, even the generally knowledgeable reference librarians had no clue; a digital search also came up empty-handed.

As did I. Having spent the better part of an afternoon at the New York Public Library, I didn't have much to show for my efforts and left its precincts feeling churlish rather than uplifted. What a contrast with the experience of earlier generations of patrons who, heartened by their encounter with the “wonder-world of books,” penned expressions of gratitude. One, from 1903, exuberantly put it this way: “I send you as many kisses as there are pennies in the world.”

I wish I could say that in 2013.

Like people, museums come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some, like the Nut Museum in Connecticut, are small and quirky; others, like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, are mighty and marvelous.

Louvre, Paris/Flickr
Whatever their ambitions or contents, museums loom large these days, beckoning us with all manner of innovative, interactive exhibitions, imaginative public programming, seductive gift shops and enticing restaurants.

At a time when many of us are more apt to keep company with our digital appurtenances than with one another, the contemporary museum is the latter-day equivalent of the public square or commons. It brings us together -- and out of the house.

Enlarging our vision of the world, museums have also increasingly become the site of communal affirmation, a place where we seek out our identity. No longer just a treat for the eyes, this premier cultural institution, a child of the Enlightenment, is now called on to nourish and sustain our souls.

Behind this recent development lies a great big yarn, one that encompasses politics and money, religion and ethnicity, postmodernism and the digital age.

It’s a story that calls out for a master storyteller -- someone on the order of Edward Rothstein, the critic-at-large of The New York Times. His weekly column on the latest exhibition -- from Prohibition to spiders and from Holocaust museums in Israel to the dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History -- are marvels of economy, insight and wit.

But don’t take my word for it. Mr. Rothstein will be speaking at GW next Tuesday, November 13th, at 7 p.m., in the Jack Morton Auditorium. His lecture is free and open to the public. Come hear for yourselves as he weighs in on “Identity Museums and Their Discontents." A stimulating, thought-provoking evening awaits.

What a difference a year makes. Last autumn, New York City was all agog at the prospect of “Sukkah City” taking root in Union Square Park. Eleven different designs of an outdoor hut, the fruits of an international design competition, were scattered around the perimeter of the park, drawing thousands of visitors and generating considerable press, all of it favorable.

Sukkah City
Sukkah City, 2010. Flickr/SpecialKRB
But this fall, in striking contrast, an attempt to install a sukkah in nearby TriBeCa’s Duane Park by a local Chabad rabbi and his wife kicked up quite a rumpus of disapproval.

In lieu of a chorus of hosannas, of sprightly talk about open source tradition and artistic innovation, the dominant register was of negativity and resistance. Citing the First Amendment, opponents of the sukkah claimed that the structure ran the risk of violating the separation of church and state. “I don’t want to encourage having all sorts of religious things in our public parks,” stated a neighborhood resident.

Perhaps it was too much to hope that “Sukkah City” might betoken a sea change in the public’s embrace of the ancient ritual structure. After all, for much of their history, urban American Jews found it much too difficult to erect a sukkah of their own, preferring to rely on that of their local synagogue.

When American Jews first lived in tenements, there was hardly any room for a sukkah, save for an uncongenial fire escape. Later still, when upwardly mobile American Jews moved to well-equipped apartment houses, erecting a sukkah clashed too strenuously with their newly acquired bourgeois norms of discretion and politesse. And these days, amid heightened concern about the establishment of religion, a public sukkah continues to be somewhat of a shaky proposition.

Still, as things turned out, there is room for common ground. Happily, the residents of TriBeCa secured an alternative venue for the Chabad sukkah. Instead of nesting in a public space, it found a temporary home on an empty lot, the private property of a local real estate company with a strong sense of neighborliness.

M.A.s are the new B.A.s, the New York Times declared just the other day in its latest survey of goings-on within the world of higher education. The road to marketability is paved with lots of new master’s programs, it noted, singling out Rutgers’ recent decision to establish an M.A. in Jewish Studies as a case in point.

Diplomas. Flickr/Sergio Rivas.
The tone of the piece, though, was something else again. It was hard to figure out where the Times stood, especially when it came to graduate programs in Jewish or Judaic studies.

On the one hand, it devoted a significant amount of coverage to the Rutgers initiative, which would suggest that it approved.

But then, sentences such as “Jewish studies may not be the first thing that comes to mind as being the road to career advancement” suggest otherwise, raising the possibility that the newspaper’s stance was far more critical than welcoming.

No matter. Any venture which contributes to a deepening of knowledge, the sharpening of critical ways of thinking and the creation of a community of individuals for whom ideas are of paramount importance can only be applauded. And if, along the way, said venture successfully enhances the marketability of its participants, so much the better.

Call me starry-eyed and naïve, but I can’t help thinking that, whatever form they take – traditional or newfangled – M.A. programs in Jewish studies end up being good for the Jews.

In this season of good will and holiday cheer, Howard Jacobson, the Booker Prize-winning author of The FInkler Question and a guest last term of GW’s English Department, has made mincemeat of Hanukkah. Taking to The New York Times to make his case, he suggests that this Jewish holiday has outlived its usefulness — if, in fact, it had any in the first place.

Is Howard Jacobson serious when he says Christmas is eclipsing Hanukkah? Image by Benjamin Golub.

Hanukkah, argues the British novelist in a cascading procession of paragraphs, simply fails to engage the contemporary imagination. Nothing about it — the food, the ritual, the music — can hold a candle to Christmas. "The cruel truth is that Hanukkah is a seasonal festival of light in search of a pretext," he writes, sidestepping history in favor of sociology. The best Jacobson can say of the holiday is that its name is "lovely." Really now.

As I made my way through the piece, I couldn't help but wonder whether Jacobson actually meant what he said or whether, his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, he was making light — and sport — of those who continually fault Hanukkah for not being Christmas.

Honestly, I couldn't tell. And I suspect other New York Times readers couldn't, either. Are we meant to chuckle at Jacobson's drollery, at his faux ho-ho-ho attitude towards Hanukkah? Or are we to take his thoughts to heart and give up on this age-old festival?

I, for one, hope that Jacobson is up to his usual tricks and is toying with us. If he isn't, well, some things are best left unsaid.

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