You know how fragments of lines you read in college sometimes lodge themselves in your head? They often do so context-free, but that just allows you assign your own context to them.
One of the fragments that stayed with me is “Infinite riches in a little room.” It’s by Christopher Marlowe, the most likely not very nice but fascinatingly romantic Elizabeth playwright who died young and badly. Perhaps not coincidentally, the line is from “The Jew of Malta.”
The play was written in an anti-Semitic time and place — England in about 1590 — and the titular Jew, a very bad guy, unsurpringly comes to a bad end.
But whenever I think of exhibits like the one in this week’s cover story, which includes priceless documents that combine history and beauty, artistry and narrative, glimpses of life that are both entirely foreign and recognizably human, I think of Marlowe’s line.
Exhibits like the one at the Jewish Theological Seminary are “infinite riches in a little room.” Not Marlowe’s
Bags of fiery opals, sapphires, amethysts,
Jacinths, hard topaz, grass-green emeralds,
Beauteous rubies, sparkling diamonds,
And seld-seen costly stones of so great price,
As one of them, indifferently rated,
And of a carat of this quantity,
May serve, in peril of calamity,
To ransom great kings from captivity.
But sometimes, as spring turns to summer and those colors that Marlowe writes about bloom outside the window, not as jewels but as infinitely more fragile if less expensive flowers, it’s satisfying to think of those words.
And even more satisfying to go to the exhibit at JTS.
Meanwhile, summer is about to start! The first day of that bright new season will be Tuesday. Everything that’s been part of this school year is starting to end now, and as that happens, we get closer and closer to life as it was pre-pandemic. Many Jewish choruses ended their season last weekend; for the first time in three years, audiences went into concert halls to hear them sing. Children had recitals and performances, and we got to watch. We have to be careful — in many places we still have to be masked, and an ambitious doctoral student in sociology or psychology could write a thesis on who wears a mask and who doesn’t, where, surrounded by whom, doing what — but we can be together. We have to show our proof of vaccination, and then we can hug.
It brings such pure joy.
As we wrote in last week’s cover story, the camp season is about to begin. Last year was weird; this year will be — or at any rate, should be — less so.
Those children and teenagers lucky enough to go to a Jewish sleepaway camp will have a summer away from the rest of the world; they’ll be free to play, sing, talk, learn, eat, hope, and dream.
It’s always thrilling to see the buses pull away from the parents as they wave at the curb, and to see the kids wave back, secure in the knowledge that maybe a minute and a half later, they can put the images of their waving parents into a safe place in the backs of their brains, as they look forward to the joy of the summer.
We hope that every camper now getting ready, finding the right stuff to wear and the right labels to go inside it, imagining the summer ahead, will have the best summer of his or her life — until next summer, that is. That one should be even better.
Every summer should be better than the last one; for this summer, it’s a low bar. – JP