Skip to content

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.

Those who know me might be surprised to learn that years ago, when I was a high school student at the Yeshivah of Flatbush -- and a very good student, at that -- I was sent to the principal’s office and promptly suspended from school. My grievous offense: the length of my skirt. The powers that be insisted it was way too short. Since I lived quite a distance from school, I had to spend the better part of the day cooling my heels and covering my knees in the secretary’s office until the private bus that, day in and day out, transported a small group of us back to our Long Island homes was ready to board.

Alice Hahn Machol, c. 1935.
Alice Hahn Machol, c. 1935.

For years, I’ve dined out on that story, a source of considerable bemusement. But it’s no longer a laughing matter. Just the other day I learned that the practice of singling out young women for their allegedly immodest and provocative clothing, for their breach of tzinut (or modesty), continues apace at my alma mater.

Recently, things had gotten so out of hand that a female student named Melissa Duchan wrote to the administration expressing her dismay. “Every school should have clear priorities; in ours, trivial concerns like a few inches of fabric have superseded more important aspects of the school environment like integrity and respect for others,” she related. In short order, Duchan’s comments fired up the blogosphere, generating quite a heated conversation about modesty, gender and sartorial norms. I wish that conversation had taken place in my day.

On a happier note, I also came across a much more positive fashion-related story this past week: the discovery of an interwar clothing atelier on Madison Avenue run by and catering to affluent German Jewish women. The genteel emporium, where money rarely exchanged hands and clothes were shipped in a green box decorated with daisies, was known as Filer-Machol after its two proprietors, Alice Hahn Machol and Edith Filer.

I was reviewing the manuscript of an historical novel that takes place in New York of the 1940s and happened across a reference to the shop. Having never heard of it before, I queried this detail and, in response, was directed to a lovely piece in the Journal of New York Folklore that discussed its history.

This revelation was a much welcome tonic, a counter-narrative, to the grim goings-on at the Yeshivah of Flatbush. It lifted my spirits where the latter story set them crashing.

In our age of digitized this, that and the other thing, I often wonder -- and worry -- about the kinds of sources that will be available to future generations. What will become of history, as we know it? Will the chroniclers of the 21st century have materials to draw on as they take the measure of American Jewish life?

Cel-ray
Cel-ray. Flickr/jojomelons

If this week was any indication, there’s little cause for concern. American Jewish history is kept alive and well and nourished by those in the food business, from Russ & Daughters in New York to DGS Delicatessen in D.C.

To set the bar high (yes, bad pun intended), consider the New Yorker, which just published a piece about the debut of Russ & Daughters Cafe, whose décor as well as bill of fare celebrates the Lower East Side of yesteryear. "The Café is a master class in how to court both the old and the new, imbued with a hard-earned air of authority and gorgeously designed to pay detailed homage to Russ & Daughters’ history,” the magazine noted admiringly.

And then, on the heels of the New Yorker article, came word, courtesy of a former student, of the latest offering from DGS Delicatessen in D.C.: Delicatessen After Dark, which this past week paid its own version of homage to the summer resorts of the Catskills, or more to the point, to the steady round of alcoholic libations its Jewish patrons reportedly imbibed while around the pool, in the dining room and late at night while laughing away at the comic antics of aspiring performers. “Delicatessen After Dark,” its website explains, “is a celebration of the new delicatessen drinking culture inspired by our grandparents’ long nights in Lower East Side taverns, getaways to Florida and jazzy escapades to the Catskills.”

Drinking culture? I was under the impression that our ancestors were more inclined towards quaffing seltzer and variously flavored sodas, among them black cherry, cream and Cel-Ray tonic than spirits.

But no matter. Future generations, curious about the everyday lives of their forbears, can now look to restaurants and their proprietors for the details. They’re the ones, after all, who are most zealously tending to the flame of history.

The Jewish holiday of Shavuoth, which just took place, is associated with many things: Harvest fruits or bikkurim; Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah and, on a more quotidian note, the eating of cheese cake and other dairy comestibles. These associations keep the age-old yontef in circulation. But now and again, modern-day life intrudes, adding a grace note to the proceedings.

Cheese cake
Cheese cake. Flickr/Alper Çuğun

Like many of my coreligionists, I had planned on eating a slice or two of cheese cake in the course of the holiday. In search of New York’s finest version, I made a beeline for William Greenberg Jr. Desserts on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a bakery known far and wide for its pastries. By the time I had arrived on the scene, on the Tuesday afternoon preceding the start of the holiday, none was to be had. “We’re all sold out,” glumly explained the woman behind the counter, one of a handful of longstanding employees who hailed originally from the Philippines. She then added that she was caught off-guard by the pent-up demand for a product which usually doesn’t sell out. “What’s going on?”

I volunteered that a holiday was in the offing. “What kind of holiday?” she asked. “Shavuoth,” I replied. “Spell it,” she commanded. Which I dutifully did, not that it clarified anything. On the contrary. Even more puzzled than before -- what kind of American holiday was Shavuoth? -- but undaunted, the Greenberg Desserts employee then turned to one of her co-workers and told her to order more cheese cakes for the morrow. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that by then, it would probably be too late: Those customers who were apt to mark the holiday with a cheese cake were not too likely to be purchasing one on Shavuoth itself. I hope that wiser heads prevailed. Otherwise, William Greenberg Jr. Desserts was going to have a surfeit of cheese cakes on its shelves -- and it would be all my fault.

The other sweet little holiday-related moment I experienced this year took place not in a bakery but at shul, where, at the conclusion of the service, the congregation’s children placed fruits and flowers at the foot of the Ark. One of their number, a boy of about 7 or 8, had made a poster in honor of the occasion, the details of which he was rather keen on sharing publicly. Drawing himself up tall, he proceeded to explain in the preternaturally mature manner of a smart Upper West Side kid that his artwork contained “approximately” 10 petals, which symbolized the “approximately” Ten Commandments. The congregation, fittingly enough, erupted in laughter.

These two incidents are not going to supplant Mount Sinai in our collective imagination, of that I’m sure. All the same, they put me in mind of the ways in which the unanticipated encounter sustains tradition. You never know what’s going to happen.

Now that the term has come to an end, I’m ready to trade my to-do list for a to-see list and to catch up on exhibitions, films and other cultural activities whose pursuit had eluded me in the course of the academic year.

Source NY Historical Society Homefront & Battlefield site
Source: NY Historical Society. Homefront & Battlefield site

At the top of my list was the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition, Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War. Although its title left something to be desired, the exhibition’s contents promised an eye-opening and possibly even an unsettling experience, or so I was led to believe by Edward Rothstein’s rave review in the New York Times. This display of Civil War textiles, of quilts and children’s clothing, military uniforms and mosquito netting, he wrote, “turns Americana back into history.” With such a strong endorsement, who could resist?

That GW is just about to open a museum devoted in large measure to textiles also fueled my interest in this particular exhibition. I was eager to learn more about the most current museological practices of display and interpretation and how to make textiles sing -- or, at the very least, tell a story.

As it happens, stories abound in Homefront & Batttlefield: of soldiers who ditched their uniforms because they were too heavy to wear in the hot Southern climate; of slaves who were uniformly dressed in the cheapest kind of fabric known as “plantation cloth”; of Quakers from Vermont who, refusing to purchase anything at all that was the product of slave labor, opened “free labor” stores; of how the word ‘shoddy,’ a textile term denoting recycled wool, entered our cultural vocabulary as a synonym for sub-par.

A stunning array of artifacts -- quilts, sample books, clothing, photographs, signage -- gives shape and structure to these stories. But, and it’s a big one, the exhibition’s design, from its deployment of chat labels to its lighting, makes it rather difficult to align artifact and interpretation. I expended a lot of energy angling my body this way and that so that I could be in a better position to read the small print. A telescope would have come in handy.

In an exhibition where the items on display stand on their own and don’t require a helping hand, this flaw may not constitute too much of a problem. In an exhibition like this one where, with the exception of the glorious quilts which were effectively displayed, so much is either unfamiliar or small scaled, the disunion between artifact and interpretation posed a real obstacle.

What should have been an encounter with history turned out to be an exercise in frustration, and an expensive one, at that. I ended up purchasing the catalogue and reading about, rather than experiencing, the past.

No sooner did I sit down to write this post than my ears were assaulted by the sounds of a jackhammer, which wreaked havoc with my powers of concentration. And then, to add insult to injury, the kid who lives in the apartment right below mine decided it was time right about now to tickle the ivories or, more to the point, to pound them. Oh, woe is me.

Sound Waves
Sound waves. Source: Smith College website

The only thing that served to ameliorate my sonic distress was the knowledge that I was not alone. In years gone by, similarly aggrieved New Yorkers took pen to paper and wrote to the municipal authorities, especially to the city’s department of health, to register their dismay at the racket that increasingly characterized urban life.

I picked up this juicy little fact from a fascinating interactive online exhibit called “The Roaring ‘Twenties” which draws on archival matter, maps and Movietone newsreels to document the aural history of New York City during the interwar years. An exercise in what its proponents call “sensory history,” the exhibition challenges us to think historically about sound.

Imagine the possibilities. We could eavesdrop on a synagogue service, whose frustrated clergy repeatedly called on those in the pews to stop talking and to tend to their prayers instead. Or we could take the measure of a sermon: Did its cadences lull its listeners to sleep or prod them into action? We could listen in on the often rancorous meetings of the all-powerful ritual committee as it decided which traditions to follow and which to relinquish. Conversations around the dinner table would also fill our ears, as would the stuff of vaudeville skits and theatrical performances. And what of the way things were taught? What of the sounds of the classroom? Of the workplace?

I’m jazzed by the prospect of integrating the history of sound into my own work and of drawing on the latest digital technologies to make that happen. I’m not sure what I’ll discover but one thing is for sure: I’ll be listening.

“There’s more?!” exclaimed a colleague rather incredulously upon learning that I was going to be out of the office for the third time in as many weeks because of the chagim, the Jewish holidays.

Sukkah City Flickr Sunghwan Yoon
Sukkah City. Flickr: Sunghwan Yoon

She didn’t know the half of it.

Though they make a hash of my schedule and mincemeat of my workload, the chagim serve as a much welcome respite -- a cocoon -- from the demands of the workaday world. They also serve as a marvelous opportunity for people-watching and observing the human condition.

Yes, I know the holidays are supposed to be about the pursuit of higher, loftier goals, from addressing one’s shortcomings to communing with a higher authority. And they are. But now and then, a determinedly human detail -- an incongruity -- surfaces, which adds considerably to the occasion.

Here are a few moments that caught my eye and struck my fancy:

*While at services on Yom Kippur, I espied a pair of shorts peeking out from under the folds of a kittel, the long white shroud that many observant folk -- men, mostly -- wear to remind them that their fate hangs in the balance. It is also customary to wear a suit, or, at the very least, a white shirt and a good pair of long pants, underneath one’s kittel as yet another reminder of the solemnity of the day.

By privileging comfort at the expense of formality, the shorts exemplified what the anthropologist Mary Douglas called “matter out of place.” There was something funny about them, too. The sight of them brought me up, well, short, and made me laugh aloud, much to the consternation of my fellow worshippers who were assiduously attending to their prayers.

*On the first day of Succoth, the seats of the synagogue I attended were filled not just with worshippers but with plastic shopping bags from a local food emporium, prompting me to wonder whether en route to synagogue, people had first stopped off at the market. You might easily think so. It turns out, though, that the sturdy plastic shopping bags were a convenient and handy way to transport and safely contain the etrog and lulav used in the course of the Succoth service.

*Another incongruity. A synagogue in my neighborhood that is usually chock-a-block with black-hatted, extremely Orthodox male worshippers -- a congregation commonly known, in Yiddish, as a shtiebl -- was closed for the holidays. On the face of it, this made absolutely no sense: How could an orthodox synagogue, punctilious in its ritual practice, be closed for Succoth, one of the major festivals of the Jewish calendar?

On further reflection, though, everything fell into place. That the congregation temporarily closed its doors was not a matter of ritual declension as much as it was a matter of heightened religiosity: the need of a succah. Given the difficulties inherent in observing this ritual commandment in an urban setting, the majority of the congregation’s members celebrated the holiday where access to a succah was assured: in Israel or, closer to home, in Monsey, Lakewood, Lawrence, or Boro Park.

Given their diminished ranks, and with it, the looming possibility that those few who remained in the city would not be able to constitute a minyan, a quorum for prayer, the shtiebl did the sensible thing and went dark.

In each and every instance, you have to marvel at the human touch.

In the wake of former New York Mayor Ed Koch’s death last week, tears flowed freely. So, too, did references to a remarkable number of Jewish words, concepts and rituals.

Ed Koch
Ed Koch. Flickr/Glenn Dettwiler
Some of them came from the deceased himself. In a video interview with the New York Times, which was not published until after Mr. Koch’s death, he allowed as how he, Yidl Itzhak, was “just this little Jewish kid from the Bronx!” His headstone, meanwhile, bore the last words of the journalist Daniel Pearl: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”

Others made a point of characterizing Ed Koch as the “proudest of Jews,” and as a man distinguished, through and through, by his chutzpah.

Then there was the inside joke made by Michael Bloomberg. At Koch’s funeral at the majestic Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, the current mayor began his remarks by saying how gratified he was that Koch had arranged to have his funeral at “my neighborhood shul.” How the 20th century grandees of Temple Emanu-El would have cringed to hear their monument to Reform Judaism likened to a modest, unassuming and decidedly East European synagogue.

It’s a measure of how far things have changed in contemporary America that Bloomberg not only made the remark in the first place, but also saw no need to translate the word “shul” into English: the reference stood on its own. A second, equally revealing, measure of change was the ease and familiarity with which Mayor Koch’s longtime Chief of Staff, Diane Coffey, publicly announced that “a shiva for the family” was going to be held at Gracie Mansion. No explanation necessary.

Elsewhere, the New York Times, for its part, indicated that “mourners, led by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, will sit shiva for Mr. Koch at Gracie Mansion.” Did the Times get that wrong? Or had the current mayor just inaugurated a brand new ritual in which political figures publicly mourned the passing of one of their Jewish colleagues?

Either way, there’s no doubt that, in life and in death, Edward I. Koch took Jewishness to a whole new level, rendering it as public as a proclamation from City Hall.

1

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.

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.

GW is committed to digital accessibility. If you experience a barrier that affects your ability to access content on this page, let us know via the Accessibility Feedback Form.