Fashion: Functionality or Art? – Isaac Mizrahi, The Jewish Museum

In August of last year, I was able to catch the Isaac Mizrahi exhibit at The Jewish Museum on 5th Avenue during its last weekend. The previous month, I’d gone to see the Manus x Machina exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was very impressive. Assuming I would see something just as beautiful and fascinating, I was pretty excited to catch the Mizrahi exhibit before it closed.

I was somewhat disappointed. I think it’s because my expectations were high after seeing what the Met had to offer. The dresses on display at the Met were impressive, intricate, attractive, and, for the most part, they were outfits that I could picture people wearing in real situations. Mizrahi’s outfits bordered on the impractical or the odd, the sort of things you see in runway fashion shows but would laugh about if you saw on an actual person in the street.

Then there were things like this:

Unusual outfits at the Isaac Mizrahi exhibit at the Jewish Museum in August, 2016

Unusual outfits at the Isaac Mizrahi exhibit at the Jewish Museum in August, 2016

I was pretty put off by the whole experience. I found the most interesting parts of the exhibit to be the wall of cloth scraps in the featured image above and the chandeliers in the museum lobby. On the other hand, the exhibit made me re-evaluate my understanding of fashion. Does fashion need to be functional, or can it be art? Can it be both at the same time? Or one or the other?

Isaac Mizrahi Fashion Exhibit at the Jewish Museum - 2016
I suppose clothing can be art, rather than something that’s worn regularly or even occasionally. Even so, Mizrahi’s work didn’t appeal to me, but that’s a matter of personal preference. He’s obviously very talented.

Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era Book Cover

Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era, by Julia Phillips Cohen – Reaction Essay

In Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era, Julia Phillips Cohen examines the ways in which the Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire engaged in image management and identity construction through media, philanthropy and by engaging in patriotic behaviors. Cohen’s goal is to use the Ottoman Jewish example to show that the concept of imperial citizenship emerged earlier than what had been suggested by earlier works. Using newspapers, letters, consular reports, photographs, and postcards, Cohen creates a narrative that shows how the Jewish community conceptualized their place in the Ottoman Empire and how that self-image changed over time.

Cohen argues that prior to her work on the Jewish community’s relationship with the Ottoman state, previous scholarship had created a distorted narrative by relying on a narrow group of Jewish chroniclers who were sympathetic to the Ottoman state. Throughout her work, she gives examples of how the trope of a special relationship existing between the empire and the Jewish community was used to create and maintain an image of loyalty and patriotism, but shouldn’t be taken at face-value, because it oversimplifies a complex and constantly changing dynamic that reflected contemporary issues and needs.

Becoming Ottomans has a narrow focus on the Jewish community, but the narrative Cohen has produced can be used as a basic model for understanding how minority communities and their relationship to the state apparatus changed over time. Initially, Cohen states that the Jewish community was not even included in the imperial government’s considerations, but that oversight does not seem to have been malicious. There were simply too few total Jews and too few in positions of power for the government to have given them any consideration. It is also probably the Jews did not figure into imperial decisions very often because the Ottomans’ primary problem was Christian Europe.

With effort, the Jews were able to make their presence felt and gain recognition for their patriotism and loyalty to the state. Jewish attempts to appear patriotic was initially a response to a fear of being considered “inside outsiders”, a potential threat to the empire. This is an important concept that touches on the tension between Muslims and non-Muslims in the empire and shows that despite official rhetoric about equality, there was always a sense of the empire belonging to Muslims. Cohen did an excellent job of exploring this idea by showing how Jews attempted to adopt the language and symbols of Islam in an effort to fit in. By the end of Cohen’s narrative, Ottoman Jews in other countries identified with the empire, so the constant efforts of the community’s elite to mold Jews into citizens with a sense of loyalty to the empire were successful.

The final chapter of Cohen’s book, dealing with “Contest and Conflict,” was confusing and spent too much time describing competition between Jewish clubs, almost obscuring the more important conflict between pro and anti-Zionists, which has greater implications for later Middle Eastern history. I also felt like Cohen should have spent more time discussing the impact of the Sephardic cooption of the Ottoman Jewish narrative on the Mizrahi, but that may have taken her too far outside the scope of her intended argument. I also received the impression that she intended this book to be consumed by scholars familiar with Jewish history, since she failed to explain issues she brought up that would not be readily comprehended by someone unfamiliar with Judaism. A good example is the problem of the Turkish ice cream seller and eating meat. If one did not understand kosher dietary laws, the entire conflict would make no sense.

Jesus in Modern Scholarship

This is a paper I wrote for an undergraduate course about a year ago called “Jesus the Jew”.


 

In The Historical Figure of Jesus, E. P. Sanders presents a very detailed examination of the evidence available for Jesus’ life. Of the three sources used for this paper, it is the most complete and the most scholarly in nature. F. E. Peters’ unpublished chapters on Jesus are very similar to Sanders’ work, though written in a more conversational way and with more emphasis on Jesus as the Gospels portray him, and on how Jesus viewed himself. Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, is written for a mainstream audience and relegates complex arguments about sources to the endnotes, but it also presents a scholarly view of Jesus with an emphasis on social unrest.

Sanders is very clear about the evidence relating to Jesus. He writes that “the more or less contemporary documents, apart from those in the New Testament, shed virtually no light on Jesus’ life or death, though they reveal a lot about the social and political climate.”[1] He is probably referring to Philo, who did not mention Jesus, and Josephus, who was born after Jesus was crucified. Sanders explains that using the New Testament as a source is problematic because it was not written as a history; it was intended to be a theological document and though historians can glean information from it, as Sanders, Peters and Aslan all do, it is impossible to know whether the information is accurate or not.

A good example of this is the contradictory reasons given to explain why Jesus grew up in Nazareth in Galilee rather than in Bethlehem.[2] The device used to reconcile this apparent scriptural contradiction is a census that required people to travel to the hometown of their ancestor of forty-two generations. Sanders describes this method as being the result of a difference between how history is thought of today and salvation history, which required Jesus to be placed in a narrative that met traditional models or types based on scriptural precedents. Aslan also points out the obvious inaccuracy of the census but explains it as the inability of writers at the time to think of history scientifically because they were attempting to reveal truths, rather than facts.[3] Regardless, the point is that the New Testament is not a document that is meant to convey factual history; it is a theological document.

Sanders relies heavily on Josephus and also references Philo as a source of information to describe the historic and social setting that Jesus acted in. Sanders writes in detail about the problems of using the New Testament and explains how it was formed, starting out orally and evolving into pericopes that could be rearranged into stories depending on the author’s needs. Because of these issues, he believes that understanding Jesus can best be done by understanding the social and historical setting of first century Palestine. Aslan is also heavily invested in exploring the social setting of Palestine to try to understand how it may have influenced Jesus as a man. He also uses Philo as source for information about Judaism and Palestine, but does not mention him within the text of the book itself. Rather, he uses extensive endnotes to mention his sources. He seems to rely more heavily on Josephus and does not engage in the sort of literary critique of the New Testament that Sanders does, perhaps because his book was written for a less scholarly audience. Peters uses the same sources, but also references post-Biblical literature like the Book of Enoch.

The limited number of resources available results in all three authors having very similar arguments and conclusions about Jesus. Sanders presents Jesus as a man who had very little impact in his own society based on Jesus’ lack of a major following and Rome’s inaction in terms of suppressing him and his movement. Aslan mentions that the authorities were highly sensitive to any hint of sedition, but Sanders points out that, despite Josephus’ narrative of steadily increasing social unrest, this was just a plot device he used to build up to the revolt in 66 CE. Aslan’s interpretation implies that Jesus’ activities were more notable than Sanders believes they were, though Aslan also acknowledges the routine nature of Jesus’ crucifixion. All three authors agree that Jesus was crucified for political ideas that undermined Rome’s position, though Peters seems to place more blame on the Jews than either Aslan or Sanders.

Both Aslan and Sanders express similar ideas about the purpose of Jesus’ mission. Aslan writes that Jesus was not interested in gentiles, at least not during his ministry. He was solely concerned with the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).[4] Sanders is more specific and explains that Jesus was also concerned with Jews of a specific social class: poor, rural Jews like himself. He also examines the symbolism of Jesus’ use of terminology like “the Twelve” and “the kingdom” to try to discover what Jesus thought he was going to accomplish. We’re left with an image of a devout Jew that felt he was attempting to bring about a new Jewish kingdom of God on Earth that would appear soon after his death. According to Sanders and Aslan, Jesus was not trying to establish a heavenly kingdom and he did not anticipate the dissolution of the physical universe. He was attempting to recreate the golden age of Jewish sovereignty, which may be why he symbolically referred to his primary disciples as “the Twelve,” referencing the twelve tribes of Israel. Peters’ work seems to imply a more apocalyptic meaning (in the Christian sense) in Jesus’ message, but that may simply be due to the unfinished nature of his unpublished work.

Sanders spends the majority of his book whittling away at source material to try to find a believable middle-ground that describes who Jesus might have been and what he might have thought about his role in society. Aslan, on the other hand, spends more time focusing on the social conflict between the Jews and Rome and between different Jewish groups. Peters puts more emphasis on the content of the Synoptic Gospels and Jesus’ role as a messiah with a scriptural basis, but all provide similar images of a historical figure based on the limited sources available. Who Jesus was as a person is likely lost forever, buried in layers of theology, revision, addition, and interpretation by later writers. Most of what can be known about Jesus, barring a new discovery, is already available and all that is left to academia is creative interpretation.

 

 

Bibliography

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Kindle Edition. New York: Random House, 2013.

Peters, F. E. “Chapters 1-5 concerning Jesus.” Unpublished Work. New York, 2012.

Sanders, E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. Kindle Edition. New York: Penguin, 1995.

 

[1] E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin, 1995), 3.

[2] Ibid., 85.

[3] Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random house, 2013), Kindle Location 682-688.

[4] Quoted in Zealot…. The translation is the author’s own.

50th Annual Celebrate Israel Parade

My wife and I went to the 50th annual Celebrate Israel Parade on 5th Avenue on the 1st. It was a lot of fun. I was particularly struck by the amount of pride and patriotism that the participants displayed. It stands in stark contrast to the attitude Americans seem to have about America.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but the Philippines National Day parade is held on the same day, one street over, every year. We missed out. Next year we’ll do a double-header and catch two parades in one afternoon.

We didn’t stay for the entire Celebrate Israel Parade. It runs from 11 AM until 4 PM. We were there until about 1:30 and then took a walk through Central Park before heading uptown to a nice a Indian food dinner in the neighborhood. It’s amazing how many cultures one can partake of in a single afternoon in this city!

Please check out the rest of my photos of the parade in full resolution in my Flickr Gallery: 50th Annual Israel Day Parade – 2014

Happy Chanukah!

A Hanukkah poster hanging in the lobby of my mother's apartment building.

A Hanukkah poster hanging in the lobby of my mother’s apartment building.

This is a bit delayed, it being the fourth night of Chanukah, but better late than never!

I saw this poster hanging in the lobby of my mother’s apartment building when we went to visit her for Thanksgiving. I wasn’t aware there were enough Jewish tenants living there for the management to recognize the holiday. Maybe they put up signs for every major religious holiday? Regardless, it was very well done and a nice gesture.

Chanukah is a commemoration of the reconquest of Jerusalem by the Maccabees and the rededication of the Temple to God. The oil they had available to light the menorah in the Temple was only enough for one day, but they lit it anyway, while they got to work making more, which was an eight-day process of pressing and purifying. According to tradition, the oil vessel miraculously refilled itself every night allowing them to keep the menorah burning for all eight nights. That’s why Jews today light a menorah each night of the holiday, in commemoration of not just the rededication but the miracle of the oil.