Colgate, Art, and Judaism

Revelation, Elbert Weinberg, 1963
Revelation, Elbert Weinberg, 1963 (Chapel House, Colgate University, Hamilton, NY)

When my alma mater, Colgate University, announced that former Israeli President Shimon Peres would be speaking on campus, I decided I wanted to be there. My rationale was really nothing more than, “Hey, I visited that guy’s country last year. I wonder what he has to say.”

The biggest challenge was that he was speaking during Family Weekend. This meant there was no room at the inn – any inn – within about 60 miles. But I have a very good network of archivists, and soon found a place to stay.

As I approached the highway entrance ramp in Hartford, I looked down to see that my odometer read 10,013 miles. My car knew it was going to Colgate.

Label accompanying the sculpture
Label accompanying the sculpture (click to enlarge)

One of the first things I did when I arrived in Hamilton was to walk up to Chapel House. I was intent on finding the sculpture by Elbert Weinberg that I knew was there but, to the best of my knowledge, had never seen before. Weinberg was, among other things, a Hartford native, and a Jew. Here in Hartford his work can be seen in front of the State Armory building on the corner of Capitol and Broad (center of photo), at the Mandell Jewish Community Center on Bloomfield Ave in West Hartford, and at Hartford Public Library. Earlier this year I was processing his papers, which are held by the Library. I had previously seen old photographs of the sculpture at Colgate, but it was great to have the opportunity to see it in person.

Shimon Peres is still jet setting across continents at age 91. In conversation with Colgate alum and ABC News’ Bob Woodward, Peres delivered a message of peace. He promoted science and technology, and was encouraging to students (I certainly hope) and non-students (I can vouch for that).

Whether or not anyone else is impressed, it was fascinating to me to be able to combine my love of Colgate, archives work, and involvement with the Jewish community in one weekend trip.

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“How can you be half Jewish?”

I’m sure my grandmother had more than one book in her house. The only one I remember, the only one that made a distinct impression on me, was Rabbi Morris Silverman’s Hartford Jews. A yellowing piece of paper, folded lengthwise, bookmarked the entry for her father and my great-grandfather, Jacob M. Richman.

An Orthodox Jew, Jacob Richman had immigrated to the United States before the pogroms were fully underway in the Pale of Jewish Settlement. After living for a short time in Colorado, he and his family settled in Hartford. He was a business owner and involved with the community.

After marrying, my grandmother did not maintain an Orthodox lifestyle. Especially by the time my mother was born, my grandparents were barely observant. As a child, my mother even hung a Christmas stocking each year. I’m not really sure what their reaction was to my mother marrying a non-Jew, but it certainly didn’t cause any permanent damage. I don’t remember my grandfather, who died when I was a little over two, but my grandmother was a constant presence in my life until she died about two months before my 14th birthday.

Most likely my grandmother and I never discussed religion. We certainly didn’t attend any services together. Displaying Silverman’s book, though, was her quiet way of saying, this is who I am.

It is possible that at this point in time I have romanticized the memory. But I don’t think that really matters. Who my grandmother was is also who I am. The biggest difference is that I was raised attending a Protestant church.

I met up with some friends the other night, and in the course of conversation, mentioned a job I’d recently applied to at a Christian school.

“Are you Christian?” asked Friend 1.

“Probably not as much as they’d prefer,” I replied.

“I thought you were Jewish?” Friend 2 interjected.

“I’m half Jewish.”

“How can you be half Jewish?” was Friend 1’s next question.

Friend 1 and I agreed that any given person can not have two completely different belief systems. It is impossible to be a devout member of two religious groups in pretty much the same way you can’t be a vegetarian who eats beef.

Mathematically speaking, though, being half Jewish is possible. My mother is Jewish, my father is not. There you go, half Jewish. Calculators aside, it gets a bit more complicated. Having a Jewish mother, I am, according to Jewish law, Jewish. The fact of the matter, though, is that my siblings and I were baptized and confirmed in the church. I do not know any Hebrew and did not have a Bat Mitzvah. Each spring I go to my aunt’s house for a Passover Seder. And these days I am enjoying my membership at the local Jewish Community Center.

Even before the conversation with my friends, I had been thinking about this topic. A couple of weeks ago I attended an event at which Judy Blume was speaking. Before the event, I reread Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. I found it easy to identify with Margaret’s journey to understand some of the religious options available to her. During the program, someone asked Blume about her own religious identification. She pretty much skirted the issue, but did refer the audience to Daniel Klein and Freke Vuijst’s The Half-Jewish Book. One inter-library loan request later, the book was in my hands.

If anyone has read the book, I would love to get your opinion. It wasn’t for me. Basing their hypotheses on the lives of half Jewish celebrities, the book reads as a justification of Klein and Vuijst’s own parenting style. Few of us – Jewish, Christian, Flying Spaghetti Monster, whatever – live lives bearing even the slightest resemblance to the pop culture figures the couple wrote about. I raised my eyebrows at chapter titles such as “The Half-Jewish Drinking Dilemma, or Is the Wineglass Half-Empty of Half-Jewish.” I was also in complete disagreement with most of the introduction, including the following.

To take this position – and to revel in the celebration that follows from it – we stand in clear opposition to those who insist “You are either Jewish or you are not; there’s nothing in between.” And we compound this blasphemy by suggesting that there is something unique, remarkable, and downright dazzling about the half-Jewish mind and the half-Jewish face, in the art and wit created by half-Jewish sensibilities, and in the the ethical, literary, and political ideas produced from the half-Jewish perspective.

I think I am supposed to be flattered. However, haven’t we, as members of the human race, learned the dangers of saying someone is smarter, prettier, funnier than another because of their genetic makeup? If I am reading this incorrectly, please let me know. One point in which I do agree with Klein and Vuijst is that there is no need for anyone to deny any part of their heritage if they do not want to.

That, I believe, is the subtle lesson my grandmother taught me by displaying Hartford Jews. No matter how we choose to live our lives, the past is important. Be proud of your family, even if you stray a bit. And that is how I can be half Jewish, by acknowledging my cultural heritage even if I have not subscribed to the religious heritage.

I have struggled with an appropriate ending to this piece. It feels, well, half finished. Perhaps someday, if I continue to explore this topic, there will be more to write.