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During the 10-day period that spans Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, it’s customary to attend to your soul, contemplate your shortcomings, and resolve to do better. Some of the rabbis I know call this “spiritual work.”

Yentl Theater J
Yentl. Source: Theater J

Mine took the form of going to the theater with a number of my graduate students in tow. Appropriately enough, the play we went to see was Theater J’s absorbing new production of Yentl.

This version of the I.B. Singer short story Yentl, der yeshive-bokher, places sexual ambiguity, or “spiritual androgyny,” as the title character puts it right at the getgo, at its core. Earlier versions, especially the 1980s Barbra Streisand vehicle, placed a premium on feminism, on yearnings that had more to do with the intellect than the body.

What struck me as I compared the merits of both productions wasn’t so much the realization that each generation fashions a Yentl that speaks most directly to its singular set of concerns. What struck me most forcefully was the power of the voice or, more to the point, the power of multiple voices, joined together in song and conversation.

From listening to the performers sing and act to engaging in lively discussion about the play with my students the very next morning, I came away heartened, even energized, by the possibilities that lie in store for those fortunate enough to use our voices in song, speech and prayer.

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. 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 other evening, I -- along with 1,999 others -- crowded the concert hall at the Kennedy Center to hear the internationally renowned pianist, Evgeny Kissin, perform.

Musical notes
Musical notes. Flickr/Horia Varlan

Some members of the audience were drawn by the opportunity to see Kissin in person. Others were drawn by the program, which featured a number of works not usually part of his repertoire: sonatas and rhapsodies by Alexander Abramovich Krein, Mikhail Milner and Alexander Moiseveich Veprik, Russian Jewish composers of the interwar years whose compositions are known only to the cognoscenti. And still others came out that chilly wintry night warmed by the prospect of seeing and hearing one of the world’s leading musicians not play, but speak -- and in Yiddish, no less.

Whatever their varied motivations, everyone in the hall was mindful that the evening’s performance was an occasion or, as one of my fellow seatmates put it succinctly, a “moment.” After all, it’s not often that Chopin gives way to Milner.

The opportunity to hear a musician’s voice is rarer still. Most of the time we get to hear them say a few words when announcing the name of the encore they’re just about to play, but then, typically, the sound of their voice is drowned out by rumbles of appreciation from the audience. As for a soloist of any caliber, let alone one of Kissin’s stature, to get up from the piano, stand all alone and unencumbered, at center stage, and recite the poetry of Bialik, Peretz and Glatstein, what can I say? You had to be there!

Applying his textured, powerful and colorful pianism to Yiddish, Kissin made the language dance. He animated its words, sending them forth into the vast reaches of the auditorium. Even if you didn’t know Yiddish, or had only a passing and highly sentimentalized understanding of it, you couldn’t help be moved by the ways in which Kissin brought out its tensile strength, drollery and clear-eyed view of the human condition.

A celebration of sound as well as an homage to Jewish culture, the concert was produced by the Kennedy Center and Pro Musica Hebraica in yet another of its smartly and imaginatively conceived programs. It reminds us that music is as likely to be found in the cadences of Yiddish as in those of the classical tradition.

I spend much of my time thinking about the past. Curiously enough, though, my interest remains professional rather than personal: The maintenance of friendships with childhood and high school pals has never been my strong suit. I prefer studying the past to cultivating it.

Flickr/Northridge Alumni Bear Facts
My husband, on the other hand, has made a point of keeping in touch with friends from bygone days. In fact, just recently he met up with a former chum whom he had not seen in decades. And therein lies a tale -- a particularly Washington, D.C., tale, to boot.

Several months ago, I gave a talk at the Library of Congress, at the conclusion of which a gentleman approached the podium asking about my last name. “You wouldn’t be related to Richard Joselit?” he tentatively inquired. When I resoundingly replied in the affirmative, saying that the man in question was my husband, the questioner, with mounting animation, told me that the two had been friendly many years ago, but had since lost touch. “Please give him my warmest regards,” he said, offering me his card and email address as well.

I dutifully reported this exchange, which greatly intrigued my husband. He also expressed a keen interest in picking up where he had left off ‘lo these many years and in short order arranged with his old buddy, whose name was Joel, to get together the next time both of them would be in Washington.

I tagged along to their reunion and watched in delight as Joel and Richard rehashed old times, reminisced freely about their summertime exploits, lamented the loss of red hair and lanky frame respectively, and gossiped about what had happened to this one and that. Although time and circumstance had markedly changed both men, they reverted back to their teenage selves within the space of an hour.

At a time when memory is all too often the stuff of recrimination and suffused with both anger and sadness, how wonderful to behold memory as a form of pleasurable exchange.

Multiple ties bind this blog and the university that hosts it to George Washington. We proudly take our name and many of our cues from him.

George Washington, Public Garden, Boston, Mass.
George Washington, Public Garden, Boston, Mass. Flickr/Eric Hatch
Under the circumstances, then, fans of the first president of the United States would do well to consult the June 24 issue of The Forward, which features both an editorial and a front-page article about the fate of the famous 1790 letter assuring the Jews of Newport of religious liberty.

As it turns out, this foundational document, a staple of American Jewry’s political and civic identity, currently reposes in a Maryland storage facility, where it’s kept under wraps. “What a loss!” The Forward declares, coming down hard in favor of publicly displaying the text.

At a time when simulacra have taken the place of the real thing, and historical literacy is increasingly an artifact of the past, taking the measure of an 18th century text with our own eyes is an experience to be cherished.

When I think of Jewish cuisine, D.C. does not immediately spring to mind. But that’s about to change. Well, sort of.

Sixth and Rye
Source: Sixth and I Historic Synagogue website.
For starters, Sixth and I just launched its very own food truck, cleverly called “Sixth and Rye,” which will purvey a kosher corned beef sandwich, a black and white cookie and other longtime staples of the American Jewish diet on Fridays, just in time for lunch.

Years ago, in his luminous memoir, A Walker in the City, Alfred Kazin observed that a family visit to the local deli on a Saturday night marked the conclusion of the Jewish Sabbath and the start of the work week.

These days, things have been turned around. If “Sixth and Rye” is any indication, not only does the deli come to us. Its arrival in the ‘hood -- and only on a Friday -- also heralds the advent of the Sabbath, symbolically linking Jewish food to the Jewish calendar.

Speaking of which, every Friday, Trader Joe’s bins are stocked with challah. What a lovely gesture, I thought as I bought one: a gastronomic salute to, and acknowledgement of, the Jewish Sabbath. That may well the case, but Trader Joe’s also makes a point of saluting challah’s potential as weekend brunch fare, cheering that the ritual bread makes “killer French toast.”

Only in America!

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

"Black woods howl in the stove/Our dog turned into a lion/but today the grownups are/Frowning like a mean witch." So go the lyrics to Karel Berman's song "Children at Play" from his 1944 work "Poupata" (Buds), sung by Canadian bass Robert Pomakov.

Walter Braunfels
Walter Braunfels

Berman's lyrics convey a naïve perspective but were composed for a bass on purpose, according to James Loeffler, research director of Pro Musica Hebraica, an organization that revives neglected Jewish music.

"If the cantor is the sound of a grown man crying, this is the sound of a grown man being reduced to a child," said Loeffler in a November 18 lecture, "What Is Jewish Classical Music and Why Does It Matter?" at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

The talk preceded the 90-minute performance "War and Exile: The Music of Berman, Braunfels, and Ben-Haim," featuring the works of Jewish composers Karel Berman, Paul Ben-Haim, and Walter Braunfels. Pianist Dianne Werner accompanied Pomakov, while the Ben-Haim and Braunfels pieces featured violins (Benjamin Bowman and Marie Bérard), viola (Steven Dann), cellos (Bryan Epperson and David Hetherington) and clarinet (Joaquin Valdepeñas).

According to Loeffler, the Holocaust was a "backdrop" to the lives of the three composers, "but they are also three different key figures in a kind of mid-century moment of reconfiguring and rethinking what it means to talk about Jewish classical music."

Pomakov, who is not Jewish and does not speak Hebrew, said prior to singing the Berman music he had never sung Hebrew opera. The new experience opened his mind as a musician, he said. "You can get very stuck doing Beethoven and Brahms and all the usual stuff."

The performance also drew on his childhood. "I'm Catholic, and half of our Bible is the Torah," he said. "I grew up singing religious texts my whole life. It's something I can look to my past for."

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Charles Krauthammer, chairman of the board of Pro Musica Hebraica, introduced the performance.

"We started from the premise that this is a very neglected area of Jewish culture, and a neglected area of classical music," Krauthammer said of the organization he co-founded with his wife Robyn four years ago. "This is a small room in the mansion of Jewish culture, and an equally small room in the mansion of Western classical music."

According to Krauthammer, people tend to identify "Jewish music" with klezmer, songs like Hava Nagilah, or liturgical music sung in the synagogue. "This whole world of Jewish classical music, which is so rich and moving, has been neglected,”"he said.

Asked if he thought Pro Musica Hebraica's audience was mostly classical music nuts wanting to learn more about Jewish culture, or Jewish music aficionados looking to expose themselves to more classical music, Krauthammer said, "I'd like to do an exit poll." He estimated that two-thirds of the audience fits the latter category, and one-third was the former group.

However exposed to Jewish classical music the audience was, it was treated not only to something other than the usual stuff, as Pomakov explained, and not only to Jewish works on par with secular classical music, as Krauthammer suggested, but also to a program that was defined as much by its sounds as by its effect on the musicians.

Berman had Pomakov grinning at the humor of the childish lyrics, and Ben-Haim's and Braunfels's compositions moved the musicians into a symphonic game of Twister, where they were swaying in their chairs and coaxing palpable emotion out of the music.

James Loeffler will be coming to GW on March 8th to deliver the annual Fleischman Lecture in Judaic Studies. His theme: the storied relationship between the Jews and the violin. Stay tuned for details.

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"

Chinatown D.C. Can you imagine the Jewish neighborhood that used to be here? Creative commons licensed image by Flickr user shindohd.

On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, the students in my "Jewish Geography" class and I traipsed around downtown Washington in pursuit of what had once been a thriving Jewish neighborhood.

Seventh Street, we were told by our knowledgeable and affable guide, David McKenzie of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, the sponsor of our walking tour, had long ago been the hub, perhaps even the spine, of D.C.'s Jewish community. But between the looming presence of the Verizon Center and the clamoring presence of a Quiznos on the one hand and a striking array of Chinese signage on the other, our imaginations had to work overtime to visualize the modest storefronts and homes owned and lived in by the Behrends and the Cohens, the Dodeks and the Smalls.

Were it not for a number of synagogues on our tour – or, more precisely still, former synagogues turned churches, whose stained glass windows and exterior markings still bear the faintest traces of Jewish stars – I suspect that many in our merry band of walkers in the city would have been hard put to believe Mr. McKenzie. Essentially, we were asked to take it on faith that once upon a time, downtown had been a Jewish enclave.

As we made our way up one decidedly contemporary street and down another, what did my students, who hailed from California and Florida, Ohio and Tennessee, make of this exercise in conjuring up the past? Did it frustrate them? Awaken an appetite for historical sleuthing or extinguish it altogether? More pointedly still, were they saddened by the disappearance of what had once been a vibrant community or did they take it in stride, as an inevitable consequence of change?

They responded to these questions in different ways. Several students spoke of how the neighborhood's Jewish presence managed, somehow, to peek through the scrim of Chinatown. Others rued the fact that what had once been alive was now contained in a history museum. And still others embraced change as the one constant in modern life.

What united these disparate answers was a growing awareness that history lessons can be found on the street as well as in the classroom.

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