NEW YORK — A visit to the Center for Jewish History in New York City is not unlike a visit to Israel herself. The elaborate building is comprised of a number of different cohabiting subgroups, each with their own agenda for the night, allowing for no shortage of last-minute confusion. There are musicians outside, protestors with signs and, most importantly, some kosher cookies waiting on a paper plate.
Okay, maybe that’s not every night, but it was when I was visited last week, and this, along with the priceless treasure of cultural and intellectual exchange, made it altogether perfect.
If you are unfamiliar with the CJH, it is an umbrella organization of multiple educational and research centers under one modern roof a block-and-a-half from Union Square. The main five partners are the American Jewish Historical Society, the American Sephardi Federation, the Leo Baeck Institute, the Yeshiva University Museum and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. There are other affiliate groups but, to put it in “Godfather” terms, these are the Five Families.
Recently the CJH elected Prof. David Myers as its new head, and Myers’s refusal to walk in absolute lockstep with the most hardcore right wing of political Jews has caused a smidge of controversy. Around 40 protestors with signs — “Jerusalem Hebron Golan Judea Samaria Ours Forever” and “End David Myers Occupation of CJH,” among others — were outside the center, with a rather outsized amplification system.
“That one there,” the at-wits-end Executive Director of the AJHS, Rachel Lithgow, said as she pointed to an older woman heading toward the microphone at the outdoor protest.
“Her husband sent me emails saying he’d spit on me,” Lithgow said, showing me a corroborating note on her phone. “For weeks I’ve been threatened to be attacked and anally raped, and this is all they could muster?”
The woman rallying her troops referred to David Myers’s background at UCLA and quipped, “He comes from California, so that ought to say something.” I confess that I couldn’t resist shouting back, “That’s anti-Pacific Time Zone bias!” (and got a big laugh).
However, the reason I was there in the first place was to see Dr. Paula Fredriksen, the author of “From Jesus to Christ,” who teaches at Hebrew University and holds the William Goodwin Aurelio Chair for the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University.
Her lecture for the evening, “A Tale of Two Cities: Rome and Jerusalem,” piqued an interest of mine, having visited both locations and done my share of walking tours. (As a professional movie critic, I’m also an enthusiastic viewer of HBO’s “Rome” and sandal pictures like “Ben-Hur.”) I was interested to see just who shows up to something like this on a Wednesday at 6:30 p.m.
Turns out a lot of people. Mostly older, and almost entirely Jewish, with many listeners very serious, jotting down notes in the margins of the handout we were given. I and at least a dozen other people had to stand as Fredriksen spoke. Foolishly I dawdled too long to get a seat, checking out the “Arch of Titus” exhibit in CJH’s Yeshiva University Museum and exploring the new audio/visual installation in the “Rome Lab,” affiliated with the CJH’s Primo Levi Center, the impetus of the evening lecture.
The standing room only aspect in the smaller mezzanine space may have also been due to spillover from a concurrent event. The CJH’s Leo Baeck Institute was hosting noted television host and ex-Haganah sniper Dr. Ruth Westheimer with a program called “Germans, Jews and Sex.” (No offense to Josephus and Herod the Great, but how did I end up at the ancient Rome lecture instead of that?)
Still, Fredriksen’s insights into Judea’s uniqueness as a Roman province were fascinating. As Fredriksen’s talk came to a close she took some questions from the audience, and joked that, at Hebrew University, she referred to this part of the program as “the counter-lecture.”
This wasn’t as combative a group, but when one man opened with “the first part of my two-part question is…” I realized I’d been standing for an hour and could really use some time off my feet. And maybe another kosher cookie if there were any left.