Peruse articles that discuss CAJM activities and initiatives, offer major news from our constituent members, or address current issues in the field.
- Pressure Mounts to Return Nazi-Looted Art
- Hundreds of forgotten art works were found hidden in a Munich apartment last week. Here the New York Times provides an update on the story.…
BERLIN — The mysterious discovery of 1,400 artworks apparently collected by a German dealer under the Nazis continued to ripple disturbingly through Germany and the art world on Sunday, prompting reports of a deal with Hitler’s propaganda chief and calls for Germans to do more to return lost works to Jewish heirs.
The Bild newspaper reported on Sunday that the dealer — an art connoisseur named Hildebrand Gurlitt who supported artists banned by the Nazis but also dealt in stolen art with Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels — arranged with Goebbels in 1940 to pay 4,000 Swiss francs for 200 pieces of “degenerate art,” the Nazi term to describe many modernist European works.
In southwestern Germany, meanwhile, the police said they had recovered 22 “valuable” artworks after a call from someone who gave an address just outside Stuttgart to go there and retrieve them.
Deidre Berger, head of the American Jewish Committee in Germany, called on the German government to move decisively to clear up ownership questions surrounding the art.
“It is a disgrace that laws are still in existence that justify injustice,” Ms. Berger said in a statement, referring to Nazi-era laws that leave the ownership status of some confiscated art unclear. She also noted the poignancy of having the art come to light as Jews gathered in Berlin this weekend to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the beginning of Hitler’s murderous persecution of the Jews.
Paris Match published what it said was a photograph of Hildebrand Gurlitt’s son, Cornelius, who reportedly kept the 1,400 works stashed for decades in a Munich apartment belonging to his family. A neighbor of Mr. Gurlitt’s in Salzburg, Austria, confirmed that the picture was that of the elderly man.
Der Spiegel magazine also reported receiving a typewritten and signed letter last week from Cornelius Gurlitt that listed the return address as the same apartment where the art was found. In the letter, the writer praised “your spiritually rich and nobly minded” magazine, but asked that the Gurlitt family name no longer be mentioned in it.
The large trove of art was discovered by authorities in February 2012, but became public knowledge only in recent days, stunning the art world and setting off a scramble to establish ownership. Authorities have publicly identified just a handful of the works.
In its report on the Gurlitt-Goebbels contract, Bild included a list of the 200 works that were to change hands, including ones by, among others, Picasso, Chagall and Gauguin.
After World War II, Hildebrand Gurlitt reported that most of his collection and all of his inventory had been destroyed in the 1945 bombing of Dresden. Twenty to 25 works listed as belonging to him were included in an exhibition that toured the United States in the mid-1950s. He died in a traffic accident in 1956.
The police in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg said on Sunday that they had received a call from a resident of Kornwestheim, about six miles north of Stuttgart, which sent officers to a house there on Saturday, where they recovered 22 artworks. The police did not identify the caller, but Bild named the man as Nikolaus Frässle, the brother-in-law of Cornelius Gurlitt. The police said that the caller had said that news reports led him to fear for the safety of the works.
The police took the works “to a safe place,” the statement said. Bild said Mr. Frässle was married to Cornelius Gurlitt’s sister, identified in official archives as Nicoline Benita Renate Gurlitt, who was born in Hamburg in 1935, three years after Cornelius. Bild said she had died but provided no further details.
The contract with Goebbels listed Hildebrand Gurlitt as living in Hamburg at the time. At some point during World War II, the family moved to or near Dresden, and fled farther south to Bavaria as the war was ending.
The elder Gurlitt was interrogated by the Allies, and his collection — listed as a few hundred works — was kept until 1950, when it was returned to him. The origins of those pieces — and of the far larger cache found in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt — is unclear. German authorities have said that research is needed before they can publish a list, but museums and the heirs of collectors who were stripped of their works by the Nazis have urged swift action to return artworks to their rightful owners.
The Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, meanwhile, reported that a painting by Max Liebermann, one of the few of the 1,400 works to be publicly identified, was listed in Germany’s official databank for art seized by the Nazis. The piece, depicting two men riding horses on a beach, is sought by the descendants of David Friedmann, who had been a sugar refiner in Breslau, a former German city now known as Wroclaw in Poland.
--- See article and slide show at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/11/arts/design/pressure-mounts-to-clear-up-ownership-of-nazi-looted-art.html
- Foundation For Jewish Culture To Close Next Year
- Long on innovative programs, but short on funds after more than five decades, the Foundation will work to find new homes for its initiatives.…
Even as the Foundation for Jewish Culture embarks on an ambitious season of programming this fall, its board of directors, faced with ongoing financial shortfalls, has voted to go out of business next year, The Jewish Week has learned.
The New York-based foundation has been the country's leading resource and advocate for Jewish culture and creativity in the United States for more than 50 years.
Elise Bernhardt, its president and CEO, said in an interview prior to the formal announcement of the closing this week that over the next year her job, and that of her staff, will be to find homes for some of the foundation's successful programs in mission-compatible organizations around the country.
"The positive news is that we have created so many wonderful programs," said Bernhardt, who has led the foundation for the last seven years. "And the sad news is that there may not be any one organization to take on all that we do."
Four NFJC fellows will begin 10 weeks of residency in Jerusalem next month as part of the American Academy in Jerusalem, a recent addition to the foundation's portfolio. And nine fellows of the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Artists, an innovative partnership program, are about to go into production on their projects in Los Angeles. (The New York branch of Six Points closed this year due to lack of funding.)
The New Jewish Culture Network, formed by the foundation, will launch a months-long tour next March of a multi-media performance exploring the Sarajevo Haggadah's history.
The foundation, which invests in creative individuals through grants, scholarships and awards in the fields of film, music, dance, literature, art and scholarship, has been praised for its impact, leveraging relatively small grants to provide key support at critical times in the lives of young artists. It has also been criticized in some circles for helping to fund some films that take a critical look at Israel.
The foundation, which was created in 1960 by the Jewish federation system, appears to be the victim of philanthropic contraction at a time of declining support for national Jewish organizations.
Major funders tend to donate to specific creative projects, which they find far more appealing than organizational overhead, observers say.
In addition, "‘national' may not be the strategy anymore," Bernhardt said, noting that donors also prefer to support programs in their own communities. "And culture is always last on the list," she added, citing a 2012 study on Jewish giving that found only 1 percent of Jewish charitable giving going for cultural programs.
The projected budget for the foundation this year was approximately $2 million, and while the funds raised came close to that figure, it was determined that the long-term prognosis was not good. One staff member had been let go and others who left on their own were not replaced. Five employees are now in the New York office and one is in Los Angeles.
Allocations to the foundation from the Jewish Federations of North America's National Federation/Agency Alliance, which has dramatically cut giving to all its beneficiaries, had steadily decreased over the last several years from about $700,000 a year to about $150,000. Another Alliance beneficiary, the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA), closed this summer.
Meetings were held over the last few months internally within the Foundation for Jewish Culture to discuss options, and potential major donors were approached. But none were prepared to make a contribution significant enough to reverse the tide.
Ironically, the FJC move comes as Mayor Michael Bloomberg has funded New York cultural institutions generously during his 12 years as mayor, as Jewish culture has been seen as an increasingly important entry point for engaging younger Jews and as a just-released study of wealthy "next-gen" philanthropists reveals that 44 percent give to arts and culture causes.
"What would Bezalel think?" Bernhardt asked rhetorically, referring to the biblical artist assigned by God to create the Mishkan, or tabernacle, when the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. "He was the ultimate multimedia artist - blessed with craft, wisdom and divine inspiration." Without his work, she observed, there would be no Mishkan, no place for collective worship, no community.
Bernhardt liked to cite the Bezalel story in talks to potential supporters, asserting that he and those like him create community through their talents, which often are under-appreciated.
"If I'm sad about anything it's that I wasn't able to make the case of the centrality of the Jewish artist to the whole enterprise," she said.
Judith Ginsberg, immediate past chair of the foundation, echoed Bernhardt'sobservation that "people are more inclined to support local projects these days.
"Things change," she said, noting that younger Jews are less interested in affiliating with and supporting national Jewish organizations.
While she takes great pride in the accomplishments of the foundation over the years in supporting artists and scholars, Ginsberg believes there is too much duplication in the organized Jewish community, and that the focus now should be on ensuring the survival and sustainability of the foundation's programs.
"It's not a tragedy," she said. "It's a smart move; it's the programs that are important."
Allen Greenberg, co-chair of the foundation, agreed, and expressed confidence in maintaining the work of the foundation, albeit "in a different format."
Among the programs the foundation invests in are a fund for Jewish documentary filmmakers, prizes in Jewish fiction and nonfiction for emerging writers, a fund to support scholars' dissertations, and grants for Jewish theater projects.
Lori Starr, executive director of The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, says the foundation excelled in the role of catalyst, to the extent that it "put itself out of business, in the best sense of the word.
"To its great credit," she said, the foundation has "done the transformative work that it has, helping museums like mine and others, and Jewish community centers, develop an institutional commitment to Jewish culture."
She credited Bernhardt for having "the passion to bring new art into the world" and the foundation for "raising the bar high."
Foundation co-chair Greenberg said one indication of the organization's legacy will be evident in the coming months as it seeks to find homes for its varied programs.
"Check back with me then," he said, "to see how we've done."
- Jewish Treasures to Return to Iraq
- The National Archives has been conserving Jewish materials discovered in Saddam Hussein's secret-police headquarters in 2003, and preparing to return them to Iraq.…
Archives readies a schoolgirl's records and a trove of Jewish treasures for return to Iraq
The girl's name was Farah. She had thick, dark hair. And in the school snapshot found in the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein's secret-police headquarters, she is smiling and wearing a pretty dress.
She was probably about 13 when the picture was taken in the 1950s. She was a student at the Jewish intermediate school in Baghdad, where she scored a 94 in English and an 88 in history.
In another time, her life might have passed unnoticed outside of her family and friends.
But her school records, and those of other Iraqi Jews, as well as a trove of water-logged treasures from Baghdad's Jewish past, are being conserved at the National Archives for their return to Iraq next year.
The material, found when U.S. troops invaded Iraq a decade ago, includes a 400-year-old Hebrew Bible and a 200-year-old Talmud from Vienna.
There is a small, hand-inked 1902 Passover Haggada, a colorful 1930 prayer book in French and a beautifully printed collection of sermons by a rabbi made in Germany in 1692.
And there are binders filled with school records like Farah's from the 1920s through 1975.
The Archives plans to open a major exhibit of some of the items Oct. 11.
Farah Gourgy Shina, the eldest of seven children, was a superb scholar, a valedictorian and a role model who helped raise her siblings, said her brother, Sammy G. Shina, in an emotional interview last week.
He said he did not know that her records had turned up in the salvaged trove, and the Archives said it knew nothing about her aside from her faded school papers.
Shina said everyone called his sister Gladys - short for gladness, the English translation of her Arabic name. After a life of example and accomplishment, she died of cancer in England in 1968 at age 29.
She left behind a husband and two small children and is buried in Oxford, England.
"I don't want to make it look like a tragic life," Shina said in a telephone interview, crying as he remembered her, "because I think she had aspirations of greatness."
Farah's records were among the approximately 2,700 books and "tens of thousands" of sodden documents retrieved from the ruined Baghdad basement, said Doris A. Hamburg, director of preservation programs at the Archives.
The trove, named the Iraqi Jewish Archive, was found by U.S. troops on May 6, 2003, in the bombed-out headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Hussein's secret police - who had, among other things, busily gathered intelligence on Iraqi Jews.
Most Jews had fled Iraq years before in the face of the violence and intimidation of the mid- to late 1900s, leaving behind the last traces of their rich 2,500-year history there, Archives officials said.
With the consent of Iraqi authorities, the material was brought to the National Archives for conservation later in 2003, Hamburg said.
But the project stagnated, according to a State Department official, as Iraq descended into insurgency and sectarian bloodshed, and it was not clear who in the Iraqi government would be the contact for the project.
"They wanted it back," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely about the negotiations. "But we wanted guarantees that it was going to be taken care of."
With some stability returning to Iraq as the insurgency waned, about $3 million in economic support funding to Iraq was redirected in 2011 to renew work on the project, the official said.
He said the items will be returned to the Iraqi antiquities ministry, though it is not clear where they will reside.
This fall, two Iraqi experts are slated to come to the Archives to study the material and the conservation procedures so they can care for the trove when it goes back to Iraq.
For now, the work is proceeding rapidly at the Archives branch in College Park. A team of experts in lab coats is working with high- and low-tech equipment to clean, digitize and package the artifacts.
Technicians working under ventilation hoods are vacuuming mold off the pages of prayer books and trying to repair insect-eaten leaves of antique texts.
Some old books have been washed or rebound.
The work is about 60 percent complete. An online display will be launched in conjunction with the exhibit, titled "Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage."
Archives officials are excited about the possibility of connecting some of the thousands of school records, which will be posted online, with former students whose early lives they describe.
"The records contain many personal stories, and the opportunity for making many connections," Hamburg said in an e-mail.
Jewish flight from Iraq
Before the mid-20th century, Baghdad had been a center of Jewish life, culture and scholarship for more than two millennia.
In the early 1900s, Jews still made up about a quarter of Baghdad's population of 200,000, the Archives said.
But in the early 1940s, there was a pro-Nazi regime in Iraq, and after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, tensions and violence flared again. Riots, pogroms and arrests occurred, and a mass emigration of Iraqi Jews followed.
Further persecution, arrests and executions followed the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War in 1967, prompting further Jewish flight.
"These people had to basically leave everything there," Hamburg said. "They had been there for centuries. So it was very difficult."
The Jewish community organizations they had founded, and their books and documents, became the focus of the secret police.
Among the institutions targeted were Baghdad's Frank Iny and Shamash Jewish schools. Hundreds of their records, with student snapshots, were found in the flooded police basement.
Among those was Farah's - complete with her photograph, grades, a faded doctor's note and intake forms, the Archives said.
Farah held a special place in her family and in the schools she attended, said Shina, 68, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.
"She was like a valedictorian in the class," he said. "You looked up to her because she was considered very smart."
She spoke French, English, Arabic and a little Hebrew, he said.
In the family, "she was like a surrogate mother," he said. "Being the older sister in a large family, she played that role very nicely."
Farah left Iraq for an arranged marriage in 1962 to an Iraqi professor at Oxford University, Shina said. She was 23.
Her brother spent the summer with her in Britain in 1963. "The transformation that happened, how she adjusted from an Eastern culture to a Western culture, was amazing," he said.
"It's not a sad story, really, because her legacy lives on," Shina said.
The Jewish cache was originally found by a group of U.S. troops from a "mobile exploitation team" assigned to search for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
Most of the items dated from the late 1800s and from the early to mid-1900s. Most of the books are written in Hebrew; many documents are in Arabic.
After the befouled water was removed from the Baghdad basement, Hamburg said, the items were placed outside to dry.
They were then stored in 27 metal trunks for safekeeping. But "between the heat and humidity, everything became quite moldy," Hamburg said.
The trunks were turned over to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, which asked the National Archives for help.
The Archives urged that the materials be frozen; they were placed in the freezer truck of a local businessman.
In June 2003, Hamburg and her colleague Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, director of conservation for the Archives, flew to Baghdad to assess the situation.
Hamburg said an arrangement was made with Iraqi representatives to bring the items to the United States for preservation and exhibition, after which they would be returned to Iraq.
The materials were flown to a site in Texas, where they were vacuum-freeze-dried. In fall 2003, they were brought to the Archives.
Every scrap of paper was kept. A database was created. And all the items were carefully wrapped.
When the State Department came up with $3 million in 2011, the next phase of the project got underway.
That included hiring more staff, buying equipment, stabilizing and digitizing, and packing the material.
The staff workers also began creating a Web site on which the digitized images could be posted and preparing the exhibit.
The material is scheduled to go back to Iraq by June.
Asked whether there was any concern about that, Hamburg said, "The agreement was that it will go back."
A family's escape
Maurice Shohet, 63, of Northwest Washington, was also a student at Baghdad's Jewish schools, and he served as a consultant on the Archives project.
His name appears on at least one salvaged Shamash school roster for 1966 and 1967.
He and 12 members of his family escaped from Iraq in 1970, amid the increasing repression of Jews.
Shohet said in an interview last week that his family's roots went back at least 250 years in Iraq. "The community is one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world," he said.
Before their escape, Jews were not permitted to leave Baghdad. Shohet's father lost his textile-
importing permit and was forced to carry a yellow identity card proving that the family had been long-term residents of Iraq.
Jews - including Shohet - were watched by Iraqi intelligence. They were not accepted to university. And some of Shohet's friends were arrested and executed.
As a result, he said, he and his two brothers began to pressure their parents to leave. It was clear that there was no future in Iraq. "We had nothing," he said. His parents, who were in their late 50s, were hesitant.
But about 4 a.m. on Sept. 2, 1970, he and a dozen family members squeezed into a large rented car and headed north for the Iranian border.
They left almost everything behind in their rented home, he said, but there were no regrets.
They crossed into Iran after a harrowing journey on foot, terrified by guard dogs and searchlights.
Shohet made his way to the United States in 1981.
Shohet, now employed by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he went back to Baghdad in 2004 on an exploratory business trip.
While he was there, he went to see his old house - 34 years after he had left it.
"I didn't even try to think who was living there," Shohet said. He was asked by those accompanying him whether he wanted to stop in: "I said, ‘No, no. Who am I to come to show off? I just wanted to [see] how it looks from the outside.' "
How did it look?
"The same," he said.
--August 13, 2013
- Jewish museums are good for the Jews — and for everyone
- Figures from Jewish museums in Amsterdam, Paris, Budapest, Berlin, Rome, Athens, Vienna and Prague suggest that the overwhelming majority of visitors are not Jewish, and further, these museums have extensive educational programs for non-Jewish schoolchildren. So what, and who, are Jewish museums for?…
I have shlepped my children to museums across London in the ambitious hope of helping them to understand other cultures.
I have also dragged them to the Jewish Museum in London to supplement their Jewish education and reinforce their identity, for that is how I understood the purpose of a Jewish museum - a place created by the Jews, for the Jews and about the Jews.
How misguided I was. In many European cities, Jewish museums are major attractions for the non-Jewish public. Figures from those in Amsterdam, Paris, Budapest, Berlin, Rome, Athens, Vienna and Prague suggest that the overwhelming majority of visitors are not Jewish, and further, these museums have extensive educational programs for non-Jewish schoolchildren.
So what are Jewish museums for? Are they just a holding place for relics of the past? Recently, I have been thinking extensively about the role of Jewish museums in Europe - how, for example, a Jewish museum embedded within its own local Jewish community is different from a Jewish museum that exists in a vacuum, devoid of a community, deracinated of a Jewish presence.
In an essay on the role of Jewish museums in the 21st century, Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek, former chief curator of the Jewish Museum of Vienna, wrote that "today's Jewish museum is, or should be, a memorial space that, through its holdings, both preserves and activates memory, an institution that educates by means of stimulating or even disconcerting its viewers, and a witness for the prosecution in the ongoing dispute between past and future."
I would suggest that a philanthropic foundation like mine, which is mandated to support Jewish culture, is caught in that awkward space between past and future, for it must function in the present.
Firstly, as the guardians of important Judaica collections, Jewish museums must be supported with the resources to ensure that there are proper inventories, provenance research, adequate storage and display facilities, and professional staff with the skills to manage the collections.
Secondly, Jewish museums, especially those in multicultural Europe, have an important sociopolitical role to play: To what extent can other communities learn to reflect on their own experiences of immigration, acculturation and assimilation from the Jewish experience?
Finally, Jewish museums involved in their own local Jewish communities are potential avenues for identity building, particularly where the formal structures within the community are rigid, paternalistic and impervious to new ideas of educational innovation. Foundations that encourage and support the varied use of museum space to nurture community engagement and Jewish education are harbingers of new and creative expressions of Jewish life.
Sally Berkovic is chief executive of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. This essay first appeared at http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/jewish-museums-are-they-good-for-the-jews/
- Haaretz Highlights Holocaust Museums
- There are hundreds of Holocaust museums, and other institutions dedicated to the commemoration and study of the Shoah, around the world. Two CAJM institutional members are cited in this short list assembled by Israeli news source Haaretz.…
Holocaust facts: Prominent museums, archives and research institutions
There are hundreds of Holocaust museums, and other institutions dedicated to the commemoration and study of the Shoah, around the world. This is a highly abbreviated list of some of the most prominent.
By Haaretz | Jul. 30, 2013 | 9:53 AM
Bad Arolsen, Germany: The International Tracing Service
Berlin: Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (known as the Holocaust Memorial)
Budapest: Holocaust Memorial Center
Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta'ot, Israel: The Ghetto Fighters House Museum
Jerusalem: Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum and International Institute for Holocaust Research
London: The Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide
New York: Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust
Paris: The Shoah Memorial, including the Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation
Terezin, Czech Republic: Terezin (Theresienstadt) Memorial
Warsaw: The Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute
Washington, D.C.: U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum
- Alaska Opens its First Jewish Museum
- Alaska opened its first Jewish museum this month, thanks to years of effort on the part of a young Chabad rabbi and his wife.…
Alaska Opens its First Jewish Museum
By Jspace Staff on 7/22/2013 at 4:44 PM
Alaska opened its first Jewish museum this month, thanks to years of effort on the part of a young Chabad rabbi and his wife.
"This is a museum about Alaska's contribution to Jewish life and about the contribution of Jews to Alaska," said Rabbi Yosef Greenberg, who, along with wife Esty, first thought up the project almost 10 years ago.
"Imagine children visiting the museum as they learn that 60 years ago, Alaskan pilots risked their lives to save Jewish lives. This is a great way to open a discussion about our distinct cultures and our shared humanity, and the powerful results that can be achieved when cultural bridges are created."
The Esformes Jewish Campus of Alaska was officially opened in Anchorage July 4, named in honor of Rabbi Morris and Delicia Esformes, whose philanthropy helped make the museum possible.
"When we came off the plane yesterday, and we got a tour of the building, all I could do was cry. This is truly magnificent," said Rabbi Esformes.
Aside from a museum and cultural center, the new site also includes a Chabad center and early education program.
"We hope others will continue to be inspired by his generosity, to ensure that Jewish life here thrives, and that the light of what we have worked to build here continues to warm the hearts and lives of Alaskans for generations to come," added Rabbi Greenberg.
US Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) and Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan were on hand for the opening.
- Mushrooming Museums
- Jewish museums are flourishing thanks to some exceptional exhibits…
A group of Germans visiting Berlin's Jewish Museum was already waiting for Bill Glucraft when he arrived to answer their questions.
Glucraft, a 27-year-old Jewish resident of the city, had volunteered to participate in an exhibit called "The Whole Truth, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Jews," which aims to illuminate facets of Jewish culture for a mostly uninformed German public. The idea of a Jew sitting on a bench in an open glass showcase serving as a museum exhibit in the former Nazi capital sparked intense controversy and worldwide media coverage, after it became commonly referred to in the press as "Jew in a Box."
Glucraft made himself comfortable on the bench, crossed his legs, and when he noted a certain reticence in the group, he smiled and said, "I don't bite. Who wants to ask a question?" "Why do Jews wear a kippa?" someone asked. "What are kosher foods?" "What is it like to be a Jew in Germany compared to being a Jew in the US?" "They were mostly simple, superficial questions," says the former Fairfield, Connecticut native who came to Berlin more than three years ago to be with his German non-Jewish girlfriend. "When you're talking to people who have never met a Jew, you can't talk about the Talmud. You have to start with the basics, Judaism for beginners.
Almost everyone admitted that they have never met a Jew and that they welcomed this opportunity."
Jewish museums are suddenly sexy. Lately, they are also getting a lot of media attention.
In the past few months, two major stories relating to Jewish museums were covered by media outlets around the world. There was the much-heralded opening of the $100 million Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Then there was the controversy surrounding the "Jew in a Box" exhibition in Berlin.
"The museum opening in Warsaw is important and the museum in Berlin is important," says Ruth Beesch, deputy director for program administration in New York City's Jewish Museum. "It's a sign that Jewish museums are flourishing in places where they might have never thought to exist."
But, in addition to those two stories, one senses that something is afoot when The New York Times runs eight stories on Jewish museums in three months.
The Berlin Jewish Museum's latest exhibition is part of a growing trend of Jewish museums sidestepping the comfort zone of staid Judaica displays of silver kiddush cups and ornate Torah crowns.
"If you look at a wall of 100 Hanukka lamps, I, and five other people in the world, will find it interesting," says Michal Friedlander, curator at the Berlin museum for the last 12 years.
"I believe in new, creative methods to reach the audience. The question is for whom are these museums created? In the US they are created by Jewish people for Jewish people. In Europe, they are largely built by non-Jews for a non-Jewish audience. Jewish museums in the US are traditionally based around Jewish life cycle and holiday traditions and are housed in buildings that belong to the Jewish community.
"European Jewish museums are recovering the histories that have been lost," says Friedlander. "They are doing cultural preservation. There was a big wave in the 80s and a lot of funding and it has died down. Now it is in Eastern Europe that more museums are being created. There are a lot of new ideas emerging, a lot of creativity."
Jewish museums are mounting innovative, interactive exhibits that explore various aspects of Jewish life and history. They are digitizing their collections, expanding their online presence and using technology-driven media in their exhibitions. This is part of a move towards viewing Judaism as a culture, rather than just a religion, and a desire to tell the story of how Jews live, and not just how they died.
Some recent examples: The Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam just wrapped up an exhibit called "Jewish Flavor: A Worldwide Cuisine," where visitors were invited to discover the Jewish kitchen and to view a collection of hundreds of Jewish cookbooks, vintage and modern, as well as kitchen tools like a Shabbat oven, a cholent pot and a kugel mold. There were cooking classes and wine tastings. An exhibit from 2008, co-produced with the Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme in Paris, showcased Superheroes and Schlemiels, Jewish memory in comic strip art.
The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco is exhibiting Black Sabbath, the secret musical history of black-Jewish relations, Johnny Mathis singing "Kol Nidre" to Cab Calloway mixing Yiddishisms in his jive.
The Jewish Museum in New York has in recent years mounted some surprising shows such as "Houdini: Art and Magic," about the renowned Jewish escape artist, "Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics," about the Jewish writers and artists who produced comic book heroes, such as Superman and Batman, "Curious George Saves the Day," about America's favorite monkey and his creators, German Jews living in Paris who escape Nazi-occupied Europe and how that experience influenced the Curious George books.
The National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia is exhibiting "Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges," the story of Jewish academics, dismissed in the 1930s from teaching positions in Germany and Austria, who found jobs at historically black colleges and universities in the South. The museum is planning an exhibition, due to open in 2014, called "Chasing Dreams," about Jews and baseball. The show's curators have opened an Internet Tumblr site to solicit user-generated content.
"Historically, Jews have always culturally engaged with music, theater, film or visual art and as scholars," says Joanne Marks Kauvar, executive director of the Council of American Jewish Museums. "We are a selfreflecting people that bring a curiosity and intellectual rigor to exploring the larger world, but also turn that on our selves.
This tremendous intellectual and cultural curiosity manifests itself in creating our own museums."
The fact that the council was founded 35 years ago with only seven members and has mushroomed to 80, coast to coast, is sufficient proof of the proliferation of Jewish museums in recent decades. It seems that as American Jews have become more secular, the role of the synagogue has diminished and the role of Jewish museums has become more important.
"Each community has its own vision and creates its own variation on the theme," says Kauvar.
But are there too many? Just in April two more have opened. A Holocaust museum opened in New York City's prestigious Bronx High School of Science, which produced eight Jewish Nobel Prize winners in physics and chemistry.
The Sephardic Museum of Granada, Spain, opened its doors and contains books and artifacts collected from across Andalusia that shed light on a Jewish community, which flourished there until 1492, the onset of the Spanish Inquisition. The museum is the brainchild of Gabriel Perez and Beatriz Cavalier, a historian and the daughter of a Jewish woman who fled the area during the Spanish Civil War. The two found a creative way to celebrate the grand opening - they got married in the museum on opening day.
"I wouldn't say there are too many Jewish museums," says Beesch, of New York's Jewish Museum. "We all have our own unique character."
Some new museums, designed by worldclass architects, occupy prime pieces of real estate.
The $150 million National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia opened its new facility in 2010 in the most historically resonant square mile in America, just a stone's throw from the Liberty Bell.
Overlooking Independence National Historic Park, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed, the museum's mission is to bring Jews closer to their own heritage and tell the story of Jews in America "unto all the inhabitants thereof."
"It's a very powerful, meaningful piece of geography," says Ivy Barsky, CEO and director of the museum. "Visitors come right off Independence Mall, the foundations of American freedom, and walk into this absolutely modern museum of Jewish history.
The fact that American Jewish history gets to have this sophisticated, charged conversation about liberty and freedom in this location is kind of incredible."
The Jewish Museum in New York City, on 92nd street and Fifth Avenue, is four blocks away from the Guggenheim, two blocks from the Cooper-Hewitt and ten blocks away from the Met. The museum, one of America's oldest Jewish museums, has an endowment of around $94 million, larger than the Guggenheim's.
"We are at the epicenter of art in New York," says Beesch.
The Skirball Jewish museum in Los Angeles, designed by renowned architect Moshe Safdie, opened in 1996 and occupies a magnificent facility uphill from the Getty Center. The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, designed by worldrenowned architect Daniel Libeskind, placed its new facility in 2008 in the city's arts district right on Mission Street. Libeskind also designed the Danish Jewish Museum in Copenhagen and the Berlin Jewish Museum, Europe's largest, which opened to the public in 2001 and was funded by the German government. The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland, Ohio, opened in 2005, imported more than 126 tons of hand-chiseled Jerusalem limestone for its façade.
Despite talk of innovation and creative exhibitions, when a reporter asks curators at the Jewish museum what they would grab if the building were on fire, the answers go right to the heart of Jewish history and ritual.
The CEO of the National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia didn't have to think long. She would grab the yellowed, original, rag-paper copy of the letter George Washington wrote to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, in which he affirmed that the nascent American government gives "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."
"It is one of the most important objects in American history," says Barsky. "His letter is in incredibly poetic. Every sentence is stunning. That would be what I would grab for sure."
Beesch, the director of programming at the Jewish Museum in New York, has more of a dilemma. Since its founding in 1904, the museum has amassed more than 25,000 objects of different media. For many years the museum emphasized cutting-edge modern art exhibits. In the 60s the museum was at the vanguard of the contemporary art world with career-defining exhibitions for artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
Some of the upcoming exhibits include "Chagall: Love, War, and Exile," planned for September 2013, "Strong Language: Mel Bochner since 1997," showing the work of the founding figure of the conceptual art movement, planned for 2014, and "Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television," planned for 2015.
So, with such a baffling cornucopia of objects from which to choose at the cutting edge of modern art, Beesch cuts right to the heart of Jewish culture.
She chooses a silver Torah crown made in 1764 in what is now known as Lviv, Ukraine.
The Torah crown is decorated with patterns in relief formed by hammering and pressing on the reverse side, pierced, engraved, partly gilded and decorated with semiprecious stones.
"In our Judaica collection we have objects that are unique and tell an incredible story of the resiliency of the Jewish People. This Torah crown is an amazing, beautiful piece," she says.
- Glimmers of Glory Days in Jewish Baltimore
- A Times reporter recently spent time tracing her roots in Baltimore, and found surprises at the Jewish Museum of Maryland and the Lloyd Street Synagogue.…
I grew up on stories about the glory days of Jewish Baltimore, when, in my father's telling, Jews were really Jews. He told stories about walking to shul, or synagogue, with his father and uncles, seeing men and women in their Shabbat finery promenading after services, and sitting in awe as the great Viennese-trained cantor, Abba Yosef Weisgal, cried out to the heavens under the soaring ceiling of Congregation Chizuk Amuno in Reservoir Hill, the Baltimore neighborhood that my forebears called home.
But by the time my siblings and I came along in the late '50s and early '60s, all that was gone. The elegant "in town" neighborhood of my father's childhood memories had long since decayed, and attending High Holy Days services at Chizuk Amuno was an exercise in watching an urban congregation on life support as the Jewish community relocated to the suburbs.
Happily, Jewish Baltimore is on the rebound, and not just in the suburbs. On a cold day in February when I went in search of the settings of my father's stories, I landed in a place where perseverance, preservation and memory have conspired to keep that vanished world available.
Turns out that I'm hardly alone. The Jewish Museum of Maryland welcomes some 7,000 schoolchildren yearly, not to mention thousands of curious adults. Situated between the historic Lloyd Street Synagogue and its slightly more junior former rival, B'nai Israel, the entire complex is a tribute to what once was. The surrounding East Baltimore neighborhood itself was not only the first stopping-off place for German Jewish immigrants, but was also, from as early as the 1830s to about 1920, a teeming immigrant enclave, known to its own citizens as Jewtown. What Orchard Street was to the Lower East Side, Lombard Street was to Jewish East Baltimore: blocks so crowded with people hawking everything from dry goods to produce to poultry that merely navigating them required a dollop of chutzpah. The street was lined with storefront cheders (Jewish elementary schools, usually for boys), Talmud Torahs (religious schools), overcrowded tenements, outhouses and gutters running with the blood of recently slaughtered animals for the kosher market. The place was home not only to Jewish immigrants, but also to Italians and African Americans. Washing was a luxury, Yiddish was the language of haggling and a stretch of Lombard Street was known as Corned Beef Row.
Corned Beef Row has dwindled to a mere two delis, Weiss and Attman's. Attman's, which opened in 1915, is still owned by the Attman family, and still serves enormous old-fashioned corned beef sandwiches with Russian dressing and a side of slaw, as well as everything else fattening, salty and delicious. Though the place is no longer kosher, the walls themselves proclaim its kosher yesteryears, with framed photographs of generations of Baltimore's Jewish machers (big shots). Well past lunchtime, it was packed.
The real story, however, isn't in the matzo ball soup, but in the museum, which, in recreated rooms, taped conversations, street scenes, pushcart displays and photographs, tells the story of a century of life in the neighborhood that was originally called Jonestown after the nearby Jones Falls, and is still, in some quarters, referred to as Jewtown. Particularly stirring for me were the re-creations and photos of garment makers, first in sweatshops, and later in factories, because it was in just such places that my great-great-grandparents, whose portraits now hang in my dining room, got their start - eventually moving out of the immigrant neighborhood, ending up in far more luxurious Eutaw Place in north Baltimore, "designed after the Champs-Élysées," according to one description. It was their generation of upwardly mobile German-Jewish community members who eventually founded the Jewish Educational Alliance, night schools that helped primarily Russian immigrants assimilate, and the Young Men's Hebrew Association, "the Y." Their stories are recounted here, as well as the stories of succeeding waves of immigrants.
If it's bricks and mortar you're after, the place to go is next-door, to the Lloyd Street Synagogue, designed by Robert Carey Long Jr., and built in 1845 with a handsome but inconspicuous Greek Revival facade. The third-oldest standing synagogue in America, according to the Jewish museum, Lloyd Street functions today primarily as a section of the museum, with exhibits in the basement, as well as two archaeological mini-digs: the first revealing the original ovens that would ensure that the matzos eaten at Passover would conform to strict kosher standards; the second, of one of the oldest mikvahs (ritual baths) in the country, also dating to the mid-1840s. It was here that its first rabbi, Abraham Rice, sermonized in German from the bimah (raised platform) set in the middle, rather than at the end of the room, in accordance with European synagogue design.
But in the 1870s a rift grew between the synagogue's founding, German-speaking Orthodox members (including my forebears) and newer upstarts who pushed to modernize worship services in accordance with the liberal ideas coming out of Germany. The founding members took their business elsewhere, building a new Orthodox synagogue, the Chizuk Amuno, at the end of the block. It is this building - the original Moorish Revival one that opened its doors in 1876, with one of the first American-born ordained rabbis, Rabbi Dr. Henry Schneeberger, at its helm - that continues to operate as a full-time modern-Orthodox synagogue, now B'nai Israel.
Entering on the first floor, the visitor is greeted by a warm room filled with books and plaques, but it is upstairs, in the sanctuary, that glory reigns: two tiers of seating (with a gallery for women), a raised center bimah, the original gas lamps (converted to electric) and a gorgeous, carved oren kodesh (ark) in the Moorish style, with palm fronds and gilded accents, and the Hebrew Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, in tabletlike form at the apex, as if to proclaim: we're here, and we're not going away.
There were dozens of other synagogues in East Baltimore as well, of course, and some of them still stand, including the long-abandoned, brick-faced Adath Israel on East Baltimore Street, and Adath B'nei Israel, a red-brick building that could easily be mistaken for a row house, also on East Baltimore Street and currently used as a church.
The good news is that, in a small but real reverse exodus, Jews are returning to the city. According to Rabbi Etan Mintz of B'nai Israel, some 5,000 have returned over the last few years alone, so much so that his own synagogue is busy year-round, and a new, if limited branch of the Jewish Community Center recently opened - downtown.
The old center (now an apartment building) is in central Baltimore, between the old neighborhood and the newer German-Jewish enclave just to the south of Druid Hill Park that my own ancestors moved to in the 1890s. Though long since cut up into separate apartments, my great-greats' home, at 1826 Eutaw Place, looks exactly as it does in old photographs. As do most of the stately, elegant buildings in this "uptown" neighborhood that was the center of Baltimore Jewish life until around the 1930s. Here too is what my father calls "the family shul," the same Chizuk Amuno building (now the reinvigorated Beth Am) that I'd been dragged to as a girl, with its original austere beauty and pale pink-and-blue glass-paneled windows intact. So too the Eutaw Place Synagogue (1892), with its soaring domes reminiscent of the Great Synagogue of Florence, maintained today by the Masons. A few blocks away, on Liberty Heights Avenue, stands the stunning Shaarei Tfiloh, famous for its stained-glass windows and large copper dome.
I had started out on a journey into my ancestors' world. I ended up in the Baltimore Hebrew Cemetery to pay my respects to their lives. It was late winter, and the great old looming trees were bare, the grass was brown and sparse, and the traffic sounds coming from the other side of the cemetery's stone walls seemed out of time. After placing small stones on the gravestones of my forebears as the traditional mark of my visit, I wandered into what appeared to be the cemetery's oldest part, in the southeast corner. Here the gravestones slant into one another as if for comfort, their Hebrew inscriptions all but worn away. What lives were these? What hardships? What dreams?
IF YOU GO
Jewish Museum of Maryland, 15 Lloyd Street; jhsm.org. Nonmember admission $8.
B'nai Israel Congregation, 27 Lloyd Street; bnaiisraelcongregation.org.
Beth Am, 2501 Eutaw Place; bethambaltimore.org.
Eutaw Place Synagogue, 1307 Eutaw Place.
Shaarei Tfiloh Synagogue, 2001 Liberty Heights Avenue.
Baltimore Hebrew Cemetery, 2100 Belair Road.
Attman's Deli, 1019 East Lombard Street; attmansdeli.com.
- The 2013 Council of American Jewish Museums Conference
- Last week in lower Manhattan, the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) hosted their annual conference, bringing together Jewish museum professionals from across the Americas and from around the world.…
Last week in lower Manhattan, the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) hosted their annual conference, bringing together Jewish museum professionals from across the Americas and from around the world. I followed the conference, picking up on reoccurring themes that effect how contemporary Jewish art is and will be explored in institutional settings. In this and subsequent articles, I am presenting some findings, as well as dialogue from both sides of some dividing issues.
CAJM caters to all kinds of Jewish art museums, including those in historic synagogues, elder residencies, educational institutions, Holocaust memorials, and large facilities that exhibit multi-media exhibitions catered to broad audiences with diverse subject matter.
The central theme of the CAJM Conference this year was The City as Muse/um, conveying that urban places can be both sites for inspiration and exhibition.
Presenting at the opening plenary were David Karnofsky from the New York City Department of City Planning, along with Charles Renfro from Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Manon Slome from No Longer Empty, which creates site specific installations in empty storefronts around New York City.
Examples were given of using rezoning to create environments that combine gallery spaces with private and public venues to help foster a flow to the way people engage with art. These examples are were not specific to Jewish institutions, but rather helped bring a new awareness to the innovations in arts engagement that have happened in New York City through redesigning where people live, do business, and unwind. They have collectively established a hub for creative experiences within an already developed art scene.
In the overarching spirit of the conference's theme "The City as Muse"- Jewish museums in urban areas, especially those set in historic synagogues, can take inspiration from the renewed interest in urbanized living and recreation and follow a model similar to No Longer Empty. These sites were encouraged to bring the synagogue back to its traditional place as somewhere a community would hold exciting social functions, with a updated focus on the interests of the young adults who are looking to engage locally. With that, bring a high level of curatorial direction to accessible spaces and think outside the box. A small but satisfied initial crowd will grow larger with subsequent events, given the quality of the experience remains.
For other institutions set in areas away from major creative activity, there was encouragement to take advantage of where people are already engaging. New organizations like the Nu Arts Initiative were calling on institutions to be flexible about engaging people outside of their walls. The underlying reasoning is that when you rethink where you are engaging people, it dictates the context for that engagement. This seems to be a difficult hump for brick and mortar institutions to get over, since they expect audiences to come to them.
New York City is its own animal when it comes to the general feeling towards Jews, art, and where they combine. Throughout the conference there were major discussions regarding how institutions engage their audience, how they can innovate their engagement through collaboration, and a debate over the way Jewish content is presented; whether the subject matter should be broadened for inclusivity vs. the perceived exclusivity that religion represents. My following articles will delve deeper into this subject-matter.
*Ideas presented in this article are taken from presenters, participants, and official CAJMcon tweets.
- Israel's Holocaust Museums Evolve
- Not just Holocaust history, but a history of Holocaust history, is displayed in Israeli museums. These explore the "archaology of trauma" and reveal how a nation has wrestled with this dark 20th-century chapter.…
KIBBUTZ LOHAMEI HAGETAOT, Israel - It isn't only the history of the Holocaust that you see on display in Israel's Holocaust museums. It's also the history of the history of the Holocaust. There is an archaeology of trauma to be found if you look closely, and in its layers and transmutations you see how a nation has wrestled with the burden of one of history's immense horrors.
Through examining how Israeli museums treat the Holocaust - including the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum here, in a kibbutz in the far north of the country, whose founders included survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising - we can see how visions of that past are changing, sometimes in unsettling ways.
One museum on another, smaller kibbutz, for example, was described in the newspaper Haaretz as "Warsaw-Ghetto Disneyland" for its new emphasis on sound and lighting effects, including a simulation of a cattle car heading to a death camp. The director of the museum at the Ghetto Fighters' House said that it would increasingly emphasize the broadest lessons of the Holocaust: an "ethical imperative" of "tolerance" that could "influence Israeli society." And when Yad Vashem in Jerusalem reworked its main exhibition in 2005 - creating the most powerful exposition of this history I have seen - it too modified its approach, with a new focus on feelings and individual stories.These changes have different meanings and effects, and some are familiar from museums devoted to the subject in other countries. But in Israel this is far from a mere museological matter.
The major Holocaust institutions, for example, are on hilltops offering grand vistas. At the Ghetto Fighters' House, which may have been the first Holocaust museum in the world to open, in 1949, you emerge from its tales of darkness onto a bright plaza, overlooking an aqueduct, an outdoor amphitheater and the plains stretching toward the sea.
A companion institution at the kibbutz, Yad LaYeled, may be the world's only children's museum devoted to the Holocaust. You descend a ramp into the darkness, as if it were a tear in the texture of ordinary experience; gradually the walls close in. Sound effects are meant to simulate a child's preverbal experience. Inscribed along the way are brief recollections, almost heartbreaking in their simplicity: "Everyone will look at my yellow star and they'll know: she's 6, and she is Jewish." And you emerge from that journey into illumination: first through a gallery about children who survived, and ultimately into the Galilean landscape.
And, of course, the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem sits on its own hill, the Mount of Remembrance. In its latest incarnation, with a new exhibition design by Dorit Harel, and with Moshe Safdie as architect, the history is recounted along a zigzagging path, leading upward through a cement gash in the mountain, emerging into daylight, overlooking the Jerusalem hills.
Even the poor relation of these at Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz in the south named after the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, creates a similar drama, calling its whole exhibition "From Holocaust to Revival." You literally walk downward into the historical narrative and gradually work through tales of resistance until you emerge again into the landscape, in which important battles were fought during Israel's War of Independence.
These museums deliberately treat the landscape as a part of the history; indeed, as a resolution. From the start, that was one meaning the Holocaust took on: the founding of the State of Israel was seen as an answer to the Holocaust and a deliverance from it. That is one reason that the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day here is observed by a moment of nationwide stillness: a siren sounds, commerce halts, and cars pull over to the side of the highway.
Museums reinforce that connection between the Holocaust and the state. It has become so strong that it has even led to a distortion of the history by some who twist the connection into cause and effect, presuming that the state was created as a guilty compensation for the Holocaust rather than as something that emerged as a result of nearly a century of development.
The association between the Holocaust and the state initially had a very different significance, highlighted in the themes of the Ghetto Fighters' House and Yad Mordechai. Both were established during the early decades of a nation left with only intermittent episodes of peace. At the time an element of shame was associated with the seeming passivity of Jews who were murdered in Europe. So the emphasis of these institutions was at first placed not on survival, but rather on rebellion.
Exhibitions at the Ghetto Fighters' House, for example, focus on Jewish resistance, ranging from an escape by prisoners from a fortress prison in Kovno (now Kaunas) in Lithuania to the secret recording of history in various ghettos. A wall at Yad Mordechai is inscribed with the name of every camp and ghetto where rebellion occurred; the museum's displays also make a connection between those battles and the resolute history of the kibbutz itself, which held off Egyptian forces - after war was declared on the fledgling state in 1948 - just long enough to prevent their march toward Tel Aviv. As recently as June, rockets launched from Gaza hit the kibbutz.
But because both of these kibbutz institutions also developed out of branches of left-wing Zionism, which would have been wary of forms of nationalism associated with the Israeli right, a mixture of sentiments has emerged there in recent decades. These founding lessons can take on different emphases. One recent tendency is to generalize what was once particular.
So in 1995 the Center for Humanistic Education was established by the Ghetto Fighters' House, stressing what it calls the "universal lessons" of the Holocaust rather than national ones, attacking "indifference to the suffering of others." When I recently spoke with Anat Livne, the museum's director, she mentioned plans for programs to encourage "tolerance" between Jews and Arabs.
None of this is evident in the exhibitions right now. But a similar strategy is employed by many American museums that attempt to draw lessons of tolerance from the Holocaust, most notably the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles (which has been involved in a controversial construction of an Israeli version in Jerusalem).
At Yad Mordechai, whose approach is more dated than the one at the Ghetto Fighters' House, attempts to create relevance have been more a matter of adding new display technology than any rethinking of the museum's mission. But the museum's director at the time, Vered Bar Samakh, told Haaretz in 2011 that the institution should incorporate notions of "peaceful coexistence" and deal with "racism and xenophobia."
"You have to learn a lesson from everything," she said. "I don't want to get into it, but the abuse at the checkpoints of the Warsaw Ghetto bridge isn't far from what's happening today at our checkpoints in Judea and Samaria."
This view, thankfully, is not explicit in the museum. But it suggests that temptations are strong to replace historical analysis with sentiment; that is more of a risk for Yad Mordechai than a Disneyfied approach, which is not particularly effective and has already been toned down. The museum now has a new director, Anat Pais, and plans for an exhibition about Poland between the world wars. But some pedagogical efforts in both museums emphasize less the need for resilience in confronting murderous ambitions than the need for tolerance, broadly applied.
This concept is familiar from American Holocaust museums, which also search for broad relevance as the last generation of survivors dies. But it leaves Holocaust museums intellectually orphaned. What "lessons" are we supposed to take away? The impulse has been to generalize, to say that a Holocaust museum can't be "just" about the murder of Jews during World War II.
Why? Is there a problem, say, with an American slavery museum being "just" about American slavery? Why should Holocaust museums deal with notions of tolerance or racism in general, or even genocide in general? Why do we think that the proper lesson comes from generalizing rather than comprehending the particular? The moment we generalize, we strip away details: we lose information and create equivalences that may be fallacious.
In Israel, as the earlier "lessons" of museums are being submerged, there has been an increased focus on simulating the experience, trying to spur empathy. Feelings are evoked because nothing else can be assumed. This is to be expected at Yad LaYeled, which is a children's museum, but elsewhere it has serious limitations.
This has even affected Yad Vashem, with its new attention to individual stories. Is this an example of that museum's response to contemporary nonchalance, an attempt to seduce us into shock?
No. Yad Vashem is a stunning counterexample. It may imply a traditional, national lesson in its presence and placement - it was, after all, founded by a Knesset law in 1953 - but it scrupulously avoids moralizing or posturing. The museum offers no lessons and promises no relevance.
The stories, facts and analyses accumulate until you begin to comprehend something beyond comprehension. The museum's implied conclusion is sensed rather than taught: after the harrowing history, you are brought back, finally, to the present, in somber gratitude.
- George Washington Letter Comes to NMAJH
- A letter from George Washington to the Hebrew congregation in Newport RI in 1790 serves as centerpiece of a National Museum of American Jewish History exhibit on religious tolerance and freedom in revolutionary America.…
June 28, 2012
One of the most significant documents in the history of Jews in the New World will go on display Friday at the National Museum of American Jewish History as part of the museum's first special exhibition, To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington and Religious Freedom.
"What was at the forefront of 18th-century debate," said Josh Perelman, the museum's chief curator and director of exhibitions, "is still relevant today, a time when religion is a topic of wide civic discussion, a time when there is a Mormon presidential candidate."
The document in question, which has been out of the public eye for a decade, is a letter written by President George Washington in August 1790 to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I. The nation's first president was responding to a letter from Moses Seixas, warden of the congregation, written on behalf of Newport's Jews after the first presidential visit to the state.
"The letter Washington writes back is, to my mind, one of the most powerful and, I would say, important statements made by an American president about religious freedom," said Perelman. "It is eloquent. It is elegant. And the words today resonate for our contemporary moment as much as they did for the residents of the late 18th century."
" ... The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation," Washington wrote. "All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens. ...
"May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants - while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid. ..."
The letter is signed "G. Washington."
Owned by the Morris Morgenstern Foundation, it was last on display at B'nai B'rith International's headquarters in Washington, D.C. When those offices closed in 2002, the letter was placed in storage. Several months ago, Perelman said, the foundation agreed to lend it to the Jewish history museum.
"It's completely consistent with our new strategic plan, and the idea that this is a museum that is ambitious and bold," said Ivy L. Barsky, the museum's director and incoming chief executive. "The letter itself is an incredible example of boldness and leadership."
To Bigotry No Sanction will be on view through Sept. 30. It is the first temporary special exhibition for the museum, which opened in November 2010 on Independence Mall at Fifth and Market Streets, but Barsky says it certainly will not be the last. In fact, she said, such shows will now become a regular feature of the museum's programming. Already in the works is one about German Jewish refugee scholars who came to the United States during the Nazi era and wound up teaching at historically black Southern colleges. Further down the road, she said, is one on Jews and baseball.
Displayed along with the Washington document is the letter from Seixas that prompted the president's assertion that the new nation would adhere to principles of religious freedom. In fact, with the two side by side, it is possible to see what inspired Washington's most rhetorically powerful turns of phrase; Seixas had used them first:
"Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People - a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance - but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine... ."
The museum places this extraordinary exchange in the larger context of post-Independence America. A Pennsylvania copy of the first proposed amendments to the Constitution is on display, as is a broadside copy of Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (proposed in 1779), considered by scholars the wellspring of American notions of religious liberty.
Also displayed are a copy from the first public printing of the Constitution, and correspondence between Washington and other Jewish communities, including those in Philadelphia and New York City. There are letters Washington wrote to Lutherans, Methodists, Quakers, Catholics - assuring all that the new federal government was committed to its founding principles.
Jefferson plays a "strong supporting role" in the exhibition, Perelman said. In addition to an early copy of Jefferson's influential Virginia Act, the exhibition contains correspondence between Jefferson and Mordecai Manuel Noah, diplomat, utopian, editor, and, in Perelman's words, "probably the most famous Jew of his day."
In the letter, Jefferson admits to American imperfection.
"More remains to be done," he tells Noah in 1818, "for altho' we are free by law, we are not so in practice."
- Jewish Museum of Florida Allies with University
- In May, an exciting merger took place for one of CAJM's institutional members. The Jewish Museum of Florida, including its two buildings, collections, libraries and other assets, has now come under the auspices of Florida International University.…
By Sergio Carmona
Florida Jewish Journal
South Florida Sun-Sentinel.com
July 11, 2012
Two local institutions have joined forces through partnership.
The Jewish Museum of Florida recently became part of Florida International University when the school's Board of Trustees voted to approve a gift that will create a partnership. The museum, located in Miami Beach, will now be known as the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU.
Authorization for the university to use the museum as a special purpose center is still pending approval by the Florida Board of Governors at press time. If approved, the intention for this gift would be to leverage the resources of both institutions and ignite a new era of interdisciplinary education, research and outreach focused on the history of the Jewish experience in Florida.
"This is a great step for us and it launches us into our next phase of growth," said Jo Ann Arnowitz, the museum's executive director and chief curator. "It's going to strengthen awareness of our institution and its mission, broaden our academic offerings, increase scholarly research of our collections and help bring a wider audience to our museum."
Arnowitz said the museum had spent three years exploring opportunities of joining forces with a major university and had been in talks with FIU for a year and a half. Through this partnership, the school will continue the museum's operations and utilize its facilities and collection to implement an academic plan consistent with both institutions' shared educational, research and outreach mission.
"There's an immense richness of research housed within the museum that explores 250 years of Jewish art, culture and history," said Mark B. Rosenberg, the university's president, in a press release prepared by the museum. "Through this generous gift, FIU will expand our reach into the South Florida community, helping to preserve an important part of our history while enhancing the global learning experience we offer our students."
One key component of this partnership is the relocation of a variety of the university's programs, including the Judaic Studies program, to the museum's facilities. The plan also includes the expansion of academic programs and research endeavors designed to educate students, faculty and the greater South Florida community about the challenges of the immigrant experiences shared by all ethnicities in Florida.
Nathan Katz, academic director for JMOF-FIU, thinks this partnership will raise the university's profile both nationally and internationally in a couple of ways.
"No. 1, it will upgrade our [FIU's] Jewish studies to be on par with anything in the Southeast United States and no.2, our museum studies program will benefit immensely, " Katz said. "We now own three museums. Not many schools do that so we think it's [partnership] going to continue to raise FIU's profile not only in Florida but also to a national and international audience."
Copyright © 2012, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Read more about the alliance.
- After a Seder on E Street, a Museum Beckons
- A new addition to the collection at the Museum of Jewish Heritage / A Living Memorial to the Holocaust is a special Haggadah designed for use at a seder that preceded a Bruce Springsteen concert at Madison Square Garden last week.…
They sang. They drank. They broke unleavened bread with a band member.
And now, the group of Bruce Springsteen fans who reconciled their dual commitments last Friday - the Passover holiday and a concert at Madison Square Garden - with a special "rock 'n' roll Seder" will be enshrined for posterity.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage has requested for its collection a copy of the customized Haggadah used for the Seder. Among the prayer book's uncommon trappings were an image of Mr. Springsteen's face, transposed over a pyramid on the front cover; lyrics to an original song, "Matzo Ball," meant to be sung to the tune of Mr. Springsteen's "Wrecking Ball"; and a modified take on a traditional Passover refrain, scrawled across the cover: "This year at the Garden, next year in Jerusalem."
Organized by Warren Rosen, 46, the owner of an insurance company in the city, the preconcert Seder attracted about 18 people, including the saxophonist Jake Clemons, the nephew of the late Clarence Clemons and a recent addition to the E Street Band.
"I was very honored," Mr. Rosen said of the museum's interest. "Twenty years from now, someone can go the museum and say, ‘Wow, somebody threw a Seder at the Garden for a Springsteen concert.'"
Abby R. Spilka, the museum's associate director, said in a telephone interview that the Haggadah, designed by Mr. Rosen's wife, Jane, captured a sense of "tradition in a modern context."
After reading an article about the Seder in The New York Times on Saturday, Ms. Spilka wrote an e-mail to Esther Brumberg, the museum's senior curator of collections, to gauge interest in acquiring the Haggadah. "Sounds nifty," Ms. Brumberg replied, before reaching out to Mr. Rosen.
"We collect artifacts of contemporary Jewish life," Ms. Spilka said. "There's a threshold question of: Would we regret not having this?"
The item will enter the museum's collection of 20th- and 21st-century artifacts, which includes images of adult women at their bat mitzvahs and baby-naming announcements for Jewish families adopting Chinese children, Ms. Spilka said.
Mr. Rosen said he planned to personally deliver the requested artifacts - two copies of the Haggadah and a handful of pictures - within the next week.
Since the story appeared, Mr. Rosen said he had received a deluge of messages from friends, strangers and even a couple of rabbis.
He also attended Mr. Springsteen's second show at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, crossing paths with a fan who seemed to recognize his face from the news.
The man told Mr. Rosen he was angry with him. Mr. Rosen asked why.
"Because," Mr. Rosen recalled the man saying, "I had the same idea."
- Israel Museum Showcased in Google Art Project
- Until Tuesday, if history buffs wanted a glimpse of the Israel Museum's vast collection — including a 9,000-year-old carved human face found in the Judean Desert — they would have to travel to Jerusalem to see it. ...…
Jerusalem ...Until Tuesday, if history buffs wanted a glimpse of the Israel Museum's vast collection - including a 9,000-year-old carved human face found in the Judean Desert - they would have to travel to Jerusalem to see it.
Now, through a joint venture with Google Inc., people from around the world can examine the ancient Neolithic artifact, which the museum says is the oldest in the world, in greater detail than ever before with a simple click of a mouse from the comfort of their own home.
The mask is just one of 520 objects made available as part of the museum's partnership with the Google Art Project, an online compilation of high-resolution images of artwork from galleries worldwide, as well as a virtual tour of the museums using the high-tech giant's Google Street technology.
The Israel Museum was among 151 museums in 40 countries taking part in the second wave of the project on Tuesday. It was first launched last February in just 17 museums, including the Tate Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Uffizi in Florence and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
"We can take the experience of our Israel Museum worldwide, we can give people far away who will never get here a chance, palpably, to feel what this place is about and we will give plenty of people who plan to come here an advance opportunity to get a handle on what this experience is about," said museum director James Snyder.
Other items included are the interior of the 18th-century Vittorio Veneto Synagogue in Italy, Claude Monet's famous "Water Lilies" painting and the Bronze Medallion of Titus - a rare coin that depicts the Colosseum in Rome.
The project follows last year's collaboration with Google to make the museum's famed Dead Sea Scrolls accessible to all online. The site drew a million viewers within a few days by allowing the public to explore these ancient biblical texts in greater detail than what was possible in person.
The Google Art Project creates a similar experience. With images larger than a gigapixel (1 billion pixels) in size, the zoom-in feature allows viewers to get inside cracks in the parchment and other details that are not visible to the naked eye.
For instance, in Peter Paul Rubens' masterpiece "The Death of Adonis," the technology allows the viewer to focus on a tear on the cheek of Venus that isn't obvious when facing the actual piece.
But Snyder said the virtual viewing would not detract from an actual visit to the museum. On the contrary, he said.
"It just makes your museum experience less daunting, it opens you more to what the experience can do for you," he said. "It begins to allow you to develop familiarity not just with an image but with context."
He lauded Google, which spent months mapping the museum with cameras mounted atop bicycles.
More than 30,000 high-resolution objects from museums around the world are now available for viewing, up from the original 1,000 when the project was first launched. Items can be found by location, artist, collections and more.
"Connecting the content of the world to users, that is part of our mission," said Yossi Matias, managing director of Google's R&D Center in Israel. "The resolution of these images, combined with a custom built zoom viewer, allows art lovers to discover minute aspects of paintings and other objects they may never have seen up close."
The project is just the latest in a long line of collaborations between Google and Israel. The tech giant has a large R&D center in Israel, has purchased several Israeli startups.
Google has also teamed up with Israel's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, to make its photographs and documents interactive and searchable on the Internet. Yad Vashem also launched a YouTube channel, in collaboration with Google, with more than 400 hours of original video footage from the landmark 1961 trial of Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann.