Saturday, October 10, 2009

From Bloomingdales to G-dcast!

With Magnes as an institutional lender, I went to the opening of As It Is Written: Project 304,805 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, or the "CJM," a somewhat new museum on the SF cityscape designed by Daniel Liebeskind.
For me and my host, after grabbing a bite at 'wichcraft, the evening started at Bloomingdales, and it's astounding how much the retail space of the Westfield Mall related to the lines of sight and kinda of empty signifiers in Liebeskind's architecture.

And, in fact, I think Liebeskind is quite purposeful to this end, reaching for a lingua franca of the spaces we share in -- malls and museums. I cannot get out of my mind the clips from Warhol where he would talk about how wonderful the synergies between shopping malls and museums were. "I just love it," I think he said in some T.V. clip I saw once. I wish I could find the video. And that kind of Warholian euphoria informed the evening as well.

Below is the description of this "living exhibition" from the Museum's web site. I will try to write more about that later. I did "take in the show," but am writing more about the opening public program and its speakers.

...an exhibition centered around a soferet (a professionally trained female scribe) who while on public view will write out the entire text of the Torah over the course of a full year. She will be one of the few known women to complete an entire Torah scroll, an accomplishment traditionally exclusive to men. As the soferet works within the gallery, she will actively engage in dialogue during a scheduled time each day, answer questions, and share the mysteries and tools of her trade. In this groundbreaking, living exhibition, the Museum will be the first public institution to reveal this traditionally private process unchanged by time for thousands of years. Visitors will have an unprecedented opportunity to learn about one of the world’s foundational religious texts and the spiritual and ritual essence of an enduring scribal art.


The soferet Julie Seltzer was the first to speak at the program. She dedicated her talk to her mother, whose birthday it was on that day. Then she moved through a discussion of eish dat, noting it's an example of "kri-and-ksiv" -- a word that is pronounced (kri) one way, but written (ksiv) in the Torah scroll a different way. These two ways of reading the word also imply different shades of meaning. And she went on to quote Rashi, "Before the creation of the world, the Torah was written with black fire on white fire." She gave a sweet, informed a poignant talk about male dominance in summation, creating her own 'kri-and-ksiv' and connecting "control" and "heart." This was some pretty heavy "drash" delivered in this context openly, effectively and in a slow -- almost petite -- and moving manner.

The next speaker was David Henkin, a UC professor of U.S. History and regular Torah reader at the Mission Minyan. Professor Henkin was introduced as the author of City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York, Columbia University Press, 1998. Henkin spoke boldly about the relationship between reading and performance. His book is available on Google books here. And I have to think that the relationship between his concepts and the potential popularization of scholarship of his sort through Google books, might make ample fodder for more books. My favorite part of his talk was when he said how important that performative nature of the collective Torah reading is, namely it was not about walking up to the bima, looking of the text silently, nodding, scanning then going, "OK. Got it..." It was funny. Henkin went on to point out that both the Hebrew word for reading and the English word read have derivations related to performing speech, not a solo act, per se.

Following Henkin came the most earnest speaker. She sang. Elana Jagoda, performed in a skirt and knit tights. I couldn't get her outfit out of my mind. It just so reminded me of things my sister usta wear. And I think that's OK. She has this really sweet tune about creation, with this "...And it was good" refrain. It felt so sexual. I am not so sure that was OK, at least on my part. It was all supposed to be so pure.

Then she did this song she'd written for G-dcast on the Parsha Kedoshim and that was fantastic, because it brought together the popular tone of the presentation over all, still it was strident, but you couldn't overlook the innately arcane and essential nature of the pursuit of Torah.







Lastly came Matthue Roth and Sarah Lefton, co-founders of G-dcast, a real Jewish response to popular Christian videos...or, more, a Jewish response to real Christian videos..or, maybe, a Christian response to Jewish real videos? I dunno. You decide. Nonetheless, they're good, the videos...or little flash movie things, or whatever they are.

And Matthue and Sarah seem real good, too. Matthue's got payos and his tzitzit was showin' and was so energized it was amazing. And Sarah seemed real together and real pregnant. He's written several books and been included in a bunch of anthologies. And he's young. And to learn about her go to what she calls leftonia, where she describes herself as having "...a wicked head for stuff that gets attention in social networks, TV and the real world," adding "I can work the networks you care about and get the word out fast." Matthue and Sarah, they needed this show not so much I don't think. They're successful on their own. And Jewish, too.

And I guess that was sort of my "take away," is that people involved in Torah don't really need this show. So it's for those who don't "have Torah," in a way, I guess. But if you weren't Jewish, why would you go to a museum called the Contemporary Jewish Museum. It's for contemporary Jews, right? or is it about contemporary Jews?

The message kinda seemed to be that in the end everyone's a cartoon, a pastiche...maybe even Torah. And, with a three-year old at home, and a world being instructed by Dora the Explorer, I don't know if that's bad in this particular context, or not.

P.S. Then I just read my newspaper this morning to find that Marge Simpson will be on the November cover of Playboy...

No comments: