“Is it not from ‘trifles’ that emerge all the important collections of national objects? One must begin by first loving that which is small and modest…that which does not attract because of its majesty and collosal forms…but where are hidden the characteristic traits of the nation, hidden by the futile modes of despotism, ignorance, and persecution.” — from Russian art critic Vladimir Stasov in 1878 (cited by Richard Cohen in “Self-Image Through Objects: Toward a Social History of Jewish Art Collecting and Jewish Museums” for Jack Wertheimer’s Uses of Tradition, New York: JTS, 1992 )
I spent the first two hours of my day in the Temple library, a repository of some real gems of American Jewish culture.
Today’s highlights include a walk through early and mid-twentieth century bookplates, a real aesthetic shot in the arm for those who get sentimental about certain manifestations of Judaica. Our Temple has had a few different bookplates in the last hundred years, my favorite a sky blue one that tastefully boasts of being the “Eighth Avenue Temple B’klyn.” The Shul is known by many names: “Garfield Temple” or “Beth Elohim” or “CBE” or “Beit Elohim.” Even the “Shul with the Pool.” But “Eighth Avenue Temple B’klyn” is new. Or old. And so new. You get the point.
It graces a 1930 publication of Sholom Ash’s Tragedy in Three Acts, “Sabbatai Zevi,” an inspiring work about false messiahs that may require a twenty-first century public reading soon–maybe for Purim–at the Eighth Avenue Temple B’klyn:
Sarah: To you, the Messiah has not come! To us, he is coming, to us! He is coming from the East! Him will I serve; his dust will I kiss; I will burn candles for him; I will sing his praise; I will weave curtains for him. His feet will I kiss and I will wipe them with my hair. (She droops her head and–all in ecstasy–is silent for some time. The crowd is terror stricken.)
Terror stricken, indeed.
We also found “Judaism in a Changing World,” designed in a very 1939 black, silver and green, edited by Rabbi Leo Jung, and includes a beautifully personal inscription from the author to a friend. That Judaism was in a changing world in 1939 is an understatement. Its preface opens with the line: “Jewish life everywhere has well-nigh lost its optimistic hue of yesterday. The horizon of Israel is covered with the clouds of fear.”
Nearly 70 years later and how much of the terms changed? How much have they remained the same?
On the other end of the spectrum is the absurdly narcissistic autobiography by the artist Judy Chicago, whose book, Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist contains the hilariously regrettable painting, “Cunt as Temple, Tomb, Cave or Flower.” I don’t know. I’d rather hear a vagina monologue on Broadway than be subjected yet again to the 70s–but that’s just me.
Particularly fascinating is how the worlds of Jewishness and non-Jewishness are still very separate in 1939. Jung’s book concerns itself with Judaism and Science; Judaism and Psychology; Judaism and Christianity. In the 60s and 70s, the books in the Shul library were about an awakening and celebration of consciousness. Today, distinctions have blurred to the point of plurality being the rule; mixtures and eclecticism and melding of ideas and structures rule the debate.
Yet that’s just the discourse, the way into the conversation.
The challenges, like the solutions, are eternally stable.
And each can be found, dusty and ready for reading, in a synagogue library.