Thursday, May 11, 2017

Jenna Weissman Joselit's "Set in Stone"

Jenna Weissman Joselit is the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History as well as the former Director of the Program in Judaic Studies at The George Washington University; she now directs two graduate programs in Jewish cultural arts. She holds a B.A. from Barnard College, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University.

Weissman Joselit is a frequent contributor to several publications including The New Republic and Gastronomica. Her column for the Forward ran for sixteen years. She now contributes a monthly column to Tablet.

Her books include The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950, which received the National Jewish Book Award in History in 1995, and she has authored more than 70 articles and reviews.

Weissman Joselit applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Set in Stone: America's Embrace of the Ten Commandments, and reported the following:
Ford Madox Ford would be pleased. Page 99 of my brand new book does reflect one of its central themes: the ways in which the Ten Commandments once unified the nation. Today they’re a source of dissension and internal conflict. But for much of American history, they brought people together. The ancient biblical code, I write, was a “symbol of commonality,” especially in the wake of World War II. At a time when the notion of the Judeo-Christian tradition began to take flight, the Ten Commandments “served handily as its visual companion.”

In his 1955 manifesto of America’s “cultural oneness,” Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in Religious Sociology, Will Herberg argued that each of the three faith traditions cherished the same ‘spiritual values, the spiritual values American democracy is presumed to stand for.’ That Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism valued the Ten Commandments proved his point, highlighting what they had in common and bringing them closer to one another – and into the fold.

Their widespread use by American Jews of the 1950s and early 1960s was no accident. In affixing the two tablets to the synagogue’s exterior, where they functioned much like an oversized mezuzah, or better yet, as a giant exclamation point – we belong! – the synagogue declared itself as much an American institution as the meetinghouse or the parish church, a place where Judaism and Americanism came together as a unified whole. A deliberate visual strategy, the prominent positioning of the Ten Commandments defined Jewish space in familiar American terms, even as it celebrated, once again, the transformation of this age-old covenant into the stuff of common ground.
Learn more about Set in Stone at the Oxford University Press website and at Jenna Weissman Joselit's website.

--Marshal Zeringue