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Archive for December, 2009

Dear New Years TV marathon viewers,

If you wondering when your local cafe, supermarket, and shopping mall would stop playing “Santa Baby,” rest assured: Christmas is almost here!  Though my own family is Jewish, the holiday still holds so many sweet memories for me: the evening  I gathered all the ornaments given to my mother by her elementary school students and decorated a cardboard box; the year I went to the movies to see Life is Beautiful with my friend Alli and about 35 octogenarians; and yes, the time my family saw a musical version of A Christmas Carol (we won tickets) while my hand swollen from a broken wrist.

Alas, sustained grinching is the most effective way I’ve found to navigate the month-long flood of specials, ads, and jingles that Christmas brings. Somewhere beneath my Scrooge-ish demeanor, I do though have an affection for holiday films like the Muppet Christmas Carol and a larger fascination with a popular culture I do not share. Take for example, the Christmas artifacts in the reliable  Duke Digital Collections. Their Ad Access archive, for one, includes this randy 1943 pitch for war bonds (on the left), and this adorable 1956 ad for Packard-Bell TV sets (on the right).

Over in their Protestant Family Archive you can also check out this 1936 article from The Christian Home by a mother wrestling over whether to tell their children about Santa Claus or not.

For something less expected, surf over to check out the Magnes Museums digitized scrapbook of what was an annual San Francisco event: the Christmas parties held at the Haas Lilienthal House—as the archivist notes, an unusual window into California’s “Jewish aristocracy.” Here are two images from the book below.

And why not surf over to the vast Museum of Broadcast Communications Archives where you can discover the ghosts of Christmas TV past, including a Liberace special and another starring Judy Garland. Yes, that’s one holiday, two gay icons!

On that note, this is the Lazy Scholar signing off for 2009. I’ll return after a short sabbatical on Monday, January 11, 2010! Happy holidays to all, and thank you as always for reading.

Merrily yours,

Stephen

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Hanukkah Caroling

Dear holiday lovers,

In case you’ve lost track of your  candle-lighting, tonight’s the sixth night of Hanukkah—a.k.a. the Festival of Lights, a.k.a. the Jewish Christmas, a.k.a. an excuse to eat oily, fried foods. Hanukkah sometimes felt like a hard holiday to get into as a kid. I loved the eight days of presents and the chocolate coins, but I didn’t understand the whole Maccabees story and not-so-secretly coveted our neighbors’ Christmas tree. There was, of course, no Charlie Brown Hanukkah special, with a misshapen menorah in place of that scraggly bush. Even in my elementary school choir, we were forced to sing “We wish you a happy Hanukkah” to the tune of “We wish you a merry Christmas,” trading figgy pudding for potato latkes. Honestly.

Of course, Adam Sandler long ago called everyone’s attention to the derth of good Hanukkah tunes. Little did he know there was a veritable smorgasbord of Hanukkah songs just waiting to be sung poorly. Thanks to the wonderful Judaica Sound Archives at Florida Atlantic University, now you can listen to two albums of the 1950s Tell Me About Chanukah! and Hanukkah The Feast Of Lights. Check out their full listing of Hanukkah albums and their holiday mix. (Click the covers below to listen!)

Not to be outdone, the wonderful Idelsohn Society (your source for reissues of the Barry Sisters and offensive “Jewface” recordings) has their own Hanukkah mix, with tracks by Milton Berle and Woody Guthrie. You can see the full album listing here (scroll down…) and listen below.

And last but not least, don’t forget about Tom Lehrer’s kitschy classic, “Hanukkah in Santa Monica,” sung here by Lehrer himself, here by Brandeis U’s Jewish Fella A Capella, and here by a glee club.

Yours in Hanukkah cheer,

Stephen

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Dear searchers of lost time,

Some of you might know that I have an odd fascination with the state guide project commissioned by the WPA during the Great Depression—a series of guidebooks detailing the history, customs, and sights of each and every corner of the nation. The guidebooks vary widely in quality, yet they remain intriguing for me precisely because of their diversity, written at a moment before a national media fully took hold and initiated the long process of homogenizing American culture.

The effort to resurrect the state as a vital component of American identity is what has long charmed me about the singer Sufjan Steven’s 50 States Project—a half-joking vow to record an album of folksy, glockenspiel-rich songs for each state. So far he’s only gotten around to Michigan and Illinois, though some songs have touched down in New York and Arkansas.

But how did, and how does, the American state exist in popular imagination? In an effort to answer this question, I’d like to introduce a new ongoing feature of these dispatches: The Divided States of America. Many digital archives are, in fact, limited to individual states (as are many historical works), so it seems to make sense to identify some archives particularly useful to a scholar of, say, Wyoming. Plus  I’m curious to see whether Missouri ultimately has a different vibe than Utah. Consider it a road trip, without traffic or smelly rest stops.

Today, I’ll head south of Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. I’ve been there only a few times in my life—once to Philadelphia, once to Pittsburgh, once to Sesame Place (I was four!), and once to Scranton for a wedding (plus the thrill of The Office connection). Villanova University‘s library has a small but impressive “Pennsylvaniana” collection, including a book of Pennsylvania poetry. Here’s one verse you might not have learned in grade school: “Hail Pennsylvania!/Noble and strong,/ To thee with loyal hearts/We raise our song./Swelling to Heaven loud,/ Our praises ring;/ Hail Pennsylvania!/Of thee we sing.”

Or check out the delightful illustrations from the 1875 book, Philadelphia and Its Environs (here’s one image on the right). Or a portrait album published by Philadelphia’s own Puglistic Publishing Company.

Also be sure to visit the (somewhat clunky) Life in Western PA photography and film collection, including the Stephen Shore-ish shot to the left of a 1970s ice cream shop.

U. of Pittsburgh’s library also has some amazing digital collections including one of Pittsburgh Public Schools. Take a look at these two spectacular images: on the left, the 1969 Westinghouse High School Ninth Grade Fashion Show; on the right, a teaching moment at Kauffman’s department store in 1972 (click images for more info).

Forecast and Company - ED Mag Fashion Show at Kaufmann's

That’s all for today. Look for two holiday posts later this week!

Yours in local pride,

Stephen

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O pioneers of the digital frontier,

Anyone who’s watched Spike Lee’s sometimes brilliant, sometimes obvious 2000 film Bamboozled, Ferris State University’s  Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia might feel eerily familiar—the docile, self-sacrificing”mammy,” the lazy, stealing, and insatiable “coon” (on the left). Less familiar to some readers may be the sexually virile “Jezebel” stereotype, embodied, curator David Pilgrim argues, by Pam Grier’s blaxploitation turn as Foxy Brown (right).

None of the artifacts on the site are explicitly sourced, which speaks, in part, to the ubiquity of the imagery over a long span of time—so long that the stereotypes’ sources in the abuses of Southern slavery have largely been forgotten. Even reproducing the images feels suspicious to me, since they still beg the viewer to take pleasure in their excesses. Old Aunt Jemima packaging once provoked delight (and relief) in seeing stereotypes depicted, hierarchies confirmed. And yet we’re left with a new ironic laughter, taking pleasure in our shock—our willingness to deride Americans of the past as unforgivably racist without admitting the subtler bigotries of the present. For all its flaws, Bamboozled makes two points worth reflection that minstrelsy continues into the 21st century in less obvious but no less pernicious forms, and that stereotypes have a life and energy of their own, which cannot be easily tamed.

Three books on the subject worth reading: Donald Bogle’s classic Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, about African-Americans in film; M.M. Manring’s Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima; and my advisor Glenda Carpio’s Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery.

Last but not least, be sure to check out Slate’s succinct slide show on the history of racist spokescharacters, Uncle—I mean Chairman Ben included.

Yours sincerely,

Stephen

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Dear Snuggie™ advocates,

I spent much of Friday flexing my would-be public intellectual muscles at a lively and illuminating roundtable discussion on the healthcare crisis (media coverage, the public option, the Stupak amendment) organized by Harvard’s Women, Gender, and Sexuality department. Yet as Jill Lepore’s recent Talk of the Town plainly shows, healthcare has been an ongoing dilemma in this country for nearly a century.

For a peek into the ways health and medicine were popularly understood and discussed in the early 20th century, skip over to the Indiana Public Health Digital Library for images culled from the Monthly Bulletin of the State Board of Health. Take these two, for example: on the left, a heartwarming illustration of two girls at play; on the right, a terrifying image of Death himself. I wonder where he stands on the “death panel” debate.

And while you’re at it, take a look at the images digitized by the National Library of Medicine, like the warning on the left against lice, also known as “cooties” or “seam squirrels,” or the Women’s Army Corps recruitment poster on the right.

Preventively yours,

Stephen

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Rabbis, Incompetent and Feisty

To the always already caffeine dependent,

The nominations are in! No, not for the Oscars or the Golden Globes, but the awards we’ve all been waiting for: The Independent Spirit Awards. Let the office pools begin! In all honesty, while I tired of televised award ceremonies long ago, the ISA’s—or is it the Indies? the Spirits?—past winners are oddly in line with the types of films I tend to enjoy: artsy, clever to a fault, vaguely alienating. You know, fun. Which is why I’m pleased, at least, to see that Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest, A Serious Man, will receive the Robert Altman Award, in recognition of its director, casting director, and acting ensemble.

If you haven’t seen it yet (and why not?), the film follows the steep downward spiral of Larry Gopnik, a mild-mannered physics professors in 1960s Minnesota. Besides the generous use of Jefferson Airplane and perfect set design, I found particularly uncanny its portrayal of suburban Judaism at the dawn of the counterculture, with its enthusiastic though largely out-of-touch rabbis and a general hollowness in the face of genuine spiritual searching. I wish I could say such anomie no longer characterized many synagogues today, but alas, the empty sermons felt eerily reminiscent of the Long Island synagogue I attended as a child, and some of the services I’ve attended as an adult.

The search for meaningful spiritual connection is, of course, nothing new among American Jews. Just take a case in point from the late nineteenth century (how do you like that segue?!): the  archives of Isaac Mayer Wise on the American Jewish Archives site. Unveiled earlier this year, the collection showcases essays, books, photographs, and letters of the Bohemian-born Rabbi Wise, who was one of the founding leaders of American Reform Judaism. And he wasn’t a bad dresser either.

Wise seemed particularly concerned about the place of Jews within a Christian nation–an issue he strikes on most clearly in his lecture “The Wandering Jew.” But Wise also weighed in on larger political debates, like temperance, arguing that a pint of beer was hardly a sin. And he wrote some passionate love letters to his wife. In one from 1876, he wrote,  “Now I have my regular hours in which to write to you. I write to you in the afternoon and immediately after dinner. This hour ought to remain kiss hour in our memories not including the other kisstime—right after dinner… If you laugh at me, Selma, for being so stingy about the kissing I shall laugh at you for being so much in love that you wrote eight ardent loveletters in a week… Your letters, my wonderful Selma, are really perfect. They show the highness of your soul and the nobleness of your heart.” Read the full translation here.

Sagely yours,

Stephen

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