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16 Over 61: Meet Matthew Baigell

This profile appears as part of “16 Over 61,” a collaboration between the Forward and the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan’s Wechsler Center for Modern Aging.

Matthew Baigell, 88, is professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University. As a scholar and writer, his interests always spanned a huge range of topics. But Judaism, and how Jews are represented in American visual culture, has in recent years been central.

Matthew Baigell

Image by Matthew Baigell

In the 20-plus books he’s authored, Baigell has written about how cartoons in the American press have advanced antisemitic stereotypes, the tradition of left-leaning politics in American Jewish art and more. The most recent of those books, which examines how American art represented Jewish identity in the mid-20th century, was published only last year.

“The main thing is to be constantly restless and to keep asking questions,” Baigell, a member of the inaugural cohort of “16 Over 61” honorees, said in an interview about his retirement. “You cannot think in terms of beginnings and endings.”

Describe your ideal birthday celebration.

Dinner with family.

16 over 61

The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and the Forward present 16 over 61. Courtesy of Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and The Forward

You wake up on a beautiful Sunday morning with an unplanned day ahead of you, and no responsibilities. How do you choose to spend it?

Reading the Sunday papers with Renee, my wife of 62 years. Planning to make or do a take-out dinner. In nice weather, go for a walk.

What makes you smile, no matter what?

Hearing from grandchildren. A totally unexpected caption under a cartoon. As in: a naked lady is seen walking by a tree with a snake peering out. The caption: “Holy shit! A talking snake.”

When you get good news, who is the first person you tell, and why?

Renee, my wife.

What’s your earliest Jewish memory?

Being unable to communicate with my grandparents, who spoke only Yiddish.

What’s one thing you absolutely cannot live without?

If you include people as things, then family.

How do you feel you’ve changed over the years? What ideas have been most meaningful to you as you’ve traveled through life?

I’ve explored Jewish history and culture, which means identifying more deeply with a real and imagined community — something beyond self.

Has your Judaism informed how you approach the process of aging? If so, how?

Only in the sense that it occupies more of my time, thoughts, intellectual energy. The process of aging is personal.

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