Peruse articles that discuss CAJM activities and initiatives, offer major news from our constituent members, or address current issues in the field.
- The Problem with Jewish Museums
- Ours is an era of museums celebrating the identity of nearly every group and ethnicity. But something else takes place when the identity in question is Jewish. ...…
In more than a decade of writing about museums, first for the New York Times and now for the Wall Street Journal, I've reviewed history museums, science museums, political museums, and museums created by eccentric collectors. I've visited two museums devoted to neon signs and one to ventriloquists' dummies, a creation-science museum and a science-fiction museum. I've seen human mutations preserved in glass jars and coffee beans sent to Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, a mummified cat and a fragment of Jeremy Bentham's skin. But I haven't seen anything quite so strange as the ways in which various Jewish communities in the United States, in Europe, and in Israel have come to depict themselves in museums.
From the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles and the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the Spertus Museum in Chicago, from the Jewish museums in London, Vienna, Berlin, Istanbul, and Israel to Holocaust museums in more cities than that, there are peculiarities in interpretation and advocacy that demand close examination. The objects on display at such institutions may range from a baseball signed by Sandy Koufax to the important Old Yiddish journal kept by a woman in 17th-century Germany, an excavated London mikveh from the 13th century (just before Jews were expelled from England), and fragments of parchment buried two millennia ago in Dead Sea caves. But all of these disparate instances disclose a surprisingly consistent self-image-one revealingly distinct from anything else in contemporary museum culture.
Before going farther, it is worth thinking briefly about origins. The great museums of the 18th and 19th centuries-the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (1891), the British Museum in London (1753), the Louvre in Paris (1792), the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg (1764), and many others-were encyclopedic in scope and ambition. Born, in part, of an imperial impulse, they aimed to demonstrate the geographical and intellectual range of great national powers by becoming repositories of some of the most precious objects on earth. Simultaneously, they were shaped by the Enlightenment conviction that both the natural and human worlds could be understood and even mastered by subjecting their diverse offerings to scientific analysis and discerning the universal laws at work in the midst of miscellany. The Enlightenment museum tried to answer great human questions: where did we come from? what is the significance of what we see? how have we come to be its overseer?
Why should not a Jewish museum, too, focusing on a civilization, religion, and culture older than most others engaged in such ardent display, have proceeded similarly? The last third of the 19th century might have been an especially opportune moment for such a project. Despite the continuing presence of anti-Semitism-climaxing in Russian pogroms in the 1880s and the Dreyfus Affair in France in the 1890s-many Jews had established themselves in the European middle classes, and individual Jews had achieved prominence in the political, economic, and cultural life of their respective nations.
But it didn't happen. The history of modern Jews, after all, was not quite the same as the histories of their host peoples, and neither was the Jewish conception of history itself. For European Jews, moreover, the Enlightenment meant something very different from what it meant for others: less a matter of discovering universal laws than of disclosing the ways in which Jews might one day be considered part of universal humanity, accepted in society with the same rights as other citizens. Often, in adapting to this highly contingent face of universalism, Judaism was susceptible not so much of finding as of losing itself.
At the time, Jewish culture was also in no position to affirm its power through a collection of monumental artifacts. Outside the synagogue and the home, such artifacts enjoyed little visibility. In 1876, the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia paid tribute to a variety of American communities of faith, but no Judaica collections existed in any American museum from which to cull examples. One Jewish contribution, commissioned by B'nai B'rith, was a monument bearing the name "Religious Liberty"; it contained no Jewish imagery at all.
So far, this brief survey may suggest an unbridgeable gulf between a Jewish museum and its non-Jewish counterparts, a gulf attributable both to the nature of Judaism and, in Europe, to the still-unsettled place held by Jews in society. But by the turn of the 20th century things appeared to be changing. Everywhere, interest in ethnicity and folk heritage was growing. In 1908, the composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály traveled the Hungarian countryside, memorializing the music of Magyars; the American ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore was recording, for the Smithsonian, 3,000 wax cylinders of songs by Indian tribes; in Eastern Europe, Shlomo Zanvl Rappoport (pen name S. An-sky) was conducting an ethnographic survey among the rural Jewish communities of Russia and Poland.
A museum of Jewish religious artifacts alone is partly a Jewish morgue, less a tribute to Judaism's continuity than a memorial to a world of belief left behind-in some cases, forcibly so.
Along with the amassing of music and oral testimony came the amassing of objects. At the Smithsonian, a Judaica collection was begun in 1887 by Cyrus Adler, who, having obtained the nation's first doctorate in Semitics at Johns Hopkins University, would found the American Jewish Historical society in 1892. In 1904, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York received a gift of 26 artifacts that it displayed in its library; they became the seeds of the Jewish Museum, which after World War II would move into its current home in the Warburg mansion on Fifth Avenue. A similarly small-scale collection, mainly of family heirlooms, was housed in the Hebrew Union College, the seminary of Reform Judaism, in Cincinnati. In 1913, the holdings became incorporated as the first Jewish museum in the United States; today its successor is the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles.
Such were the halting beginnings of the Jewish museum in the United States, and once again a difference is to be observed. In other museums, collections of artifacts were often associated with a culture's thriving continuity; the objects were there to testify to that culture's power and range. By contrast, a Jewish religious object put on exhibit was no longer playing its vital role in synagogue or home; taken out of its context and function, it had been turned into a relic, more closely resembling the artifacts of a fading Native American tribe in a museum of natural history than a 17th-century Dutch portrait at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Even today, a museum of Jewish religious artifacts is partly a Jewish morgue, less a tribute to Judaism's continuity than a memorial to a world of belief left behind-in some cases, forcibly so. One of the most moving exhibits of religious artifacts I've seen fills an entire gallery at the Jewish Museum in Vienna. Tall glass storage cases are packed with candlesticks, menorahs, Torah finials, spice boxes, and the like, arranged not by period or style or origin but by type: objects whose provenance and function were lost when the Nazis seized them from villages and towns and cities across the Reich. Now they are monuments to a world of belief and practice wrenched not only from its habitat but from the earth.
I. The Development of the "Identity Museum"
There have long been reasons, then, for thinking of the Jewish museum as a kind of anomaly. But evidently no longer: over the last four decades, the entire concept of a museum-any museum-has been radically transformed, with repercussions felt in Jewish museums as they are everywhere else.
To grasp the change, we can set up two poles. Traditional museums strove to fulfill the elevated Enlightenment ideal of uniting differences ("out of many, one," as the great seal of the United States had it); new museums, founded on the conviction that too much was slighted or deleted in the past, prefer to highlight difference and to emphasize distinction. Traditional museums were culturally Eurocentric in spirit; new museums are multicultural. Traditional museums often focused on heroic figures and world-shaking events; new museums are preoccupied with the democratic and the demotic. Traditional museums cherished the authoritative; new museums are "conversational." Traditional museums had their foundation in their collections; new museums have their foundation in their audiences. Traditional museums celebrated the universal; new museums celebrate the particular.
Rebelling against and rebuking their predecessors, the latest museums have created a new genre, one that may epitomize our era as neatly as the imperial and Enlightenment museums did theirs. That new genre is the "identity museum," whose origins lie in a mode of politics that developed during the 1960s.
In the United States, such museums typically bear a hyphenated name. Thus, in the last few decades, there have been new Chinese-American museums, new Japanese-American museums, an Asian-American museum, African-American museums, an Arab-American museum, a Hispanic-American museum, American Indian museums, and even a Nordic-American museum. On the national mall in Washington, DC, the most important African-American museum in the country is expected to open in 2016. And now there is heavy lobbying for another national museum on the mall devoted to Hispanic Americans and yet another telling the history of American women.
The identity-museum genre is now so prevalent, and the rules of its displays so formulaic, that they are almost never commented upon or even recognized. But the genre is one that, with a few modifications, seems all but ready-made for Jewish museums. After all, every Jewish museum is, by definition, an identity museum. Within this framework, one might think, such a museum would come into its own, aiming not for encyclopedic reach or Enlightenment insight but telling a particular story and telling it well, with or without collections of objects. (In fact, some identity museums show scarcely any objects at all.)
But, as a few representative cases will show, something else takes place when the identity in question is Jewish.
Consider, to begin with, a museum that seems to have been consciously designed as a model identity museum: the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, which opened in 2010. Overlooking Independence National Park, the Liberty Bell, and the National Constitution Center, it tells the history of the Jews in the United States as if from a similar perspective, keeping certain ideas and ideals in view. Its theme, in 25,000 square feet and three floors of exhibition galleries, is American freedom and what Jews have made of it. In chronological order, the museum's narrative is divided into "Foundations of Freedom 1654-1880," "Dreams of Freedom 1880-1945," and "Choices and Challenges of Freedom 1945-Today," punctuated by multiple examples of migration, assimilation, discrimination, discrimination overcome, and re-invention.
There is much to see here. The 18th-century material, which may be the least familiar, includes such rarities as an intriguing 1722 brochure by Rabbi Judah Monis explaining why "the Jewish Nation are not as yet converted to Christianity." (Monis may well have had a personal stake in this explanatory exercise, having himself become a Christian so as to be allowed to teach Hebrew at Harvard College.) Then there are images of 19th-century Jewish settlers in the American West, and costumes from 19th-century Jewish charity balls; 20th-century accounts of Jews in crime and in the world of entertainment, and anecdotes about Jews as distillers and as philanthropists. Near the narrative's end are film clips from the 1960s counterculture and feminist movement, leading into a gallery in which late-20th-century American popular culture unfolds, its Jewish elements italicized.
The vision here is of modern Jewish history as a kind of apotheosis of popular U.S. history, a tribute to the adaptive possibilities of American-style freedom.
This is a vision of modern Jewish history as a kind of apotheosis of popular U.S. history, a tribute to the adaptive possibilities of American-style freedom. And here, for better and for worse, we can already see major differences between this and the typical identity museum.
Typically, the contemporary American identity museum tells of a group's distinctiveness and unity by recounting its multiple attempts to join the nation's mainstream society. Grievous sufferings are undergone, primarily because of racism and intolerance. But then, after refusing to surrender or assimilate, by fully embracing its own identity and aggressively affirming its rights, the group begins to undermine the rigid prejudices of the surrounding culture and to attain freedom on its own terms-terms that by its lights are truer to American ideals than is America itself. In keeping with the hortatory message, the museum also typically serves as a community center and meeting place whose purpose is to promote and solidify the identity it celebrates.
Almost no identity museums veer from this narrative; it is applied to Japanese Americans, Arab Americans, and Hispanic Americans. Even Native Americans and black Americans, whose histories are distinct and of a wholly different kind, maintain the general pattern. The one overwhelming exception is the Jewish American museum, and the differences are profound and illuminating.
The simplest difference can be seen in the Philadelphia museum. In other identity museums, the surrounding society is portrayed as forbidding, and any success obtained has less to do with opportunities offered than with opportunities seized in the face of hard resistance. The Philadelphia museum, like many other Jewish American exhibitions, suggests the opposite. Jews do not succeed despite America; they succeed because of America-an assertion that would be near-heresy at the typical identity museum.
This may have something to do with the fact that Jewish immigrants themselves often celebrated and gave thanks to America virtually from the moment of their arrival, so dramatic was the difference from the worlds they had left behind. A notable artifact at the Philadelphia museum, composed for Congregation Beth Shalome of Richmond, Virginia, is a Hebrew prayer for the new American state in honor of the first Thanksgiving declared by George Washington in 1789; it is in the form of an acrostic, with the first letters of each line spelling out the president's name. As in other identity museums, we learn here that Jews, too, had to struggle against flaws in the American dispensation, but that didn't happen because they proved truer to American ideals than America itself. Nor did their success come about, as is contended in nearly every other identity museum and exhibition I have seen, through the triumph of identity politics and the liberationist counterculture. America deserves, and receives, credit.
The American theme in Jewish museums goes even farther. Consider the Skirball Center in Los Angeles. A major force in the city's cultural life, the Skirball contains a performing-arts space, conference halls, libraries, event spaces, and gardens. Beginning with the small collection of Judaica in the pioneering Jewish museum at Hebrew Union College, the Skirball now holds more than 30,000 Jewish artifacts, many of which make an appearance in its permanent historical exhibition. But they are not the main point of that exhibition, which instead focuses on the multiple journeys taken by Jews over the millennia, concluding not with the Jewish people's return to Zion but with the creation of a new Jewish life "At Home in America." So impassioned is this attachment that the museum includes an enormous reproduction in two-thirds scale of the Statue of Liberty's torch, and among its other artifacts is a 20th-century Ḥanukkah lamp in which each candle is held up by a Statue of Liberty.
As in the Skirball, so, too, at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum. An exhibition there in 2012 featured a reproduction of a stained-glass window from Sherith Israel, one of the city's first Jewish congregations, that shows Moses with the Ten Commandments. The window can still be seen in the synagogue. There as in the reproduction, Moses stands not before Sinai but in front of the magnificent Half Dome crest in Yosemite National Park: the source, evidently, of divine authority in the new Promised Land, and a sign that at least in some respects, today's Jewish identity museums are treading a well-worn path.
But this is extravagantly unlike any other kind of American identity museum. Within such a museum of hyphenated identity, the accent falls on the term before the hyphen, emphasizing the Chinese, the Indian, the Arab, the black, de-emphasizing if not devaluing the American. In Jewish museums, the emphasis shifts in the other direction. Despite the presence of discrimination and hardship, America, and the American promise, are the decisive factors.
So far, so good. But that's not the only contrast between the two types. Unfortunately, as faithful and historically accurate as Jewish museums might be to the promise of American democracy, they simultaneously tend to turn a peculiarly blind eye to the promise, and the substance, of Jewish identity itself. That is the second and deeply problematic contrast-one that would seem to call into question the very purpose of the identity museum itself.
As faithful as Jewish museums might be to the promise of America, they tend to turn a peculiarly blind eye to the promise, and the substance, of Jewish identity itself.
In the case of most minorities, to judge by the story told in identity museums, the freedom gained in the United States has been the freedom to become most like themselves. For their part, many Jewish American museums are more preoccupied with the freedom of Jews to become American than with the freedom of Jews to remain fully Jewish. In fact, there is often a suggestion that exercising the former freedom is precisely how Jewish Americans are most true to their identity.
Thus, pride in Jewish American identity is measured in terms of how much that identity has contributed to the American scene. "However Jewish identity is defined," we read at the Skirball, it has led to immense achievements and "its vitality is reflected in literature, film, music, drama, education, science, commerce, and technology." Similarly, in the roster of Jewish achievements at the Philadelphia museum, in which Bob Dylan and Albert Einstein and Bella Abzug merit distinctive mention, I can't recall any significant discussion of how Jewish identity has expressed itself in Jewish terms-in advancing Jewish scholarship, say, or in interpreting Jewish religious texts, or in formulating deeper understandings of Jewish peoplehood, or in articulating collective Jewish interests. When divisions within and among Jews are recognized, there is little doubt which parties are considered more authentic: namely, those whose ideas are most congenial to the vision of the museums' founders. In these institutions, Judaism, including American Judaism, is transfigured into a kind of Jewish-inflected, progressive-style-Americanism.
Left unexamined in this transformation is how unique, historically, the American emphasis on individualism was, and how dramatically it altered the organizational coherence that Judaism had typically possessed in other nations over the course of two millennia. So radical has its effect been that there are times when the specifically Jewish aspect of American Jewish identity can even be celebrated for its seeming vacuity. A featured quotation in an exhibition at the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum a few years ago was: "The Jewish Film Festival is my favorite Jewish holiday." At the Skirball's Noah's Ark exhibition for children-a marvelous interior playground inspired by the biblical story-any hint of that story's biblical character has been meticulously eliminated. Not only is there no God, but the Ark has become "a symbol of human resilience," and the divine promise encapsulated in the biblical rainbow is now an instruction to children to "Build a Better World." Underscoring the point, the Skirball's literature about the Ark encourages children "to work together for the greater good, to strengthen connections within and among families, to value diversity within community, to respect and protect minorities."
Neither the Philadelphia museum nor the Skirball nor the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum is unique. In exhibition after exhibition, at one museum after another, the impression is conveyed that over time, an antique form of particularism-the Jewish religion, and the Jewish people who have been the historic carriers of the Jewish vision-has been evolving into a new, ardently welcomed form of universalism. At the San Francisco museum, designed by the celebrity architect Daniel Libeskind, the Hebrew word pardes, orchard-a term taken by medieval Jewish exegetes as an acronym referring to four types of biblical interpretation (and associated etymologically with the English word "paradise")-is a crucial symbol, made visible in semi-abstract Hebrew characters. But for the museum, it does not, in any exhibition I have seen, offer a lens into understanding Jewish history or belief or practice. Instead, we are instructed that pardes means "creat[ing] an environment for exploring multiple perspectives, encouraging open-mindedness," and "acknowledging diverse backgrounds."
The Skirball, for its part, approvingly notes that American Jews embrace the message of Passover by "taking active roles in civic life and supporting the global struggle for human rights"-that is, they fulfill their Jewish identity by becoming advocates of other groups and their identity sagas, as if the notion of "healing the world" were now the defining Jewish principle. Near the end of the Skirball exhibition, a video shows faces of varied ethnicities morphing into each other, the obvious implication being that all identity is fluid and that none, or at least the Jewish variety, is to be celebrated in itself. With Americanism fading into multiculturalism, tinged by the remnants of New Age spirituality, nothing is really essential to Jewish American identity other than simply declaring it. In no other setting of which I am aware is group identity defined by the abnegation of one's own group identity.
II. Group Identity and the Jews
I don't want to leave the impression that the celebration of group identity at non-Jewish identity museums is without problems. Even apart from their frequently reflexive distortions of the American character-distortions unnecessarily applied even when criticism is deserved-the genre is in fact riddled with problems. These are instructive in their own right and may help deepen our inquiry.
When, for example, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington opened in 2004, identity politics were so powerful that early exhibitions allowed individual tribes to decide how they were to be portrayed. Indulgently overseen by curators, they would "tell their own stories." The result was an unmitigated disaster, as artifacts once analyzed and exhibited in conformity with the highest academic standards were stripped of all scholarship, rendering history meaningless. The entire conception of the museum was based on a fantasy, implicitly asserting that tribes as different as the Tapirapé of the Brazilian jungles and the Yupik of Alaska should cohabit under the single political canopy of the "American Indian" identity, protected by a gauze of romance. Although the museum has since made progress toward repairing the damage, it still has not shed its spirit of advocacy, which is an unavoidable aspect of the identity-museum genre as a whole.
Indeed, I can't think of a single identity museum that is not disfigured by historical over-simplification and even delusion, including the Wing Luke Asian American museum in Seattle, which lumps together groups and cultures (Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian) that have almost nothing in common and have often been actively hostile. What supposedly gives these disparate groups a single "identity" is their shared experience of racism under the lash of White America-though history shows they were well acquainted with racism and warfare at each other's hands.
In fact, a peculiarity of this and other ethnic museums (like the Museum of Chinese Americans in New York) is that it becomes unclear why immigrants from a group subjected to such horrific racism should have kept arriving in such great numbers-a puzzle that, so far as I know, is never explained in any identity museum. Instead, racism is invoked mainly to disguise obvious differences and define a single identity, which is then used to create a political force. Even a more innocently constructed identity triggers distortion, as at Seattle's Nordic Heritage Museum, which strives to pull Norwegians, Finns, Danes and Swedes together in a Nordic union with a shared story-never mind that Norway long celebrated its constitutional independence from the Swedes.
What was the basis of the profound sense of identity that energized the Jews and ensured their survival as a people? American Jewish identity museums repeatedly strip away the needed information.
It is of some relief, then, that Jewish museums have seen fit to invert or ignore much of the identity-museum mythology, including the political construction of identity. This is not because Jewish identity has been seamless and indivisible. There have been vast differences among Jewish subcultures throughout history, not to mention outright hostilities so radioactive that matches between couples from conflicting traditions or ritual approaches were considered as abhorrent as marriage with non-Jews. But there was generally also a sense of a Jewish identity transcending such differences. In addition, while Jews have been hated and faced discrimination for centuries, such discrimination or racism, unlike what is alleged in the case of many of the other hyphenated identities on display in museums today, did not form the unifying aspect of Jewish identity, any more than Jewish identity was created in order to paper over internal divisions, real or perceived. Jewish identity existed despite such external racism and internal division: a connection far stronger than any between the Yupik and the Tapirapé or the Japanese and the Koreans.
What, then, was the basis of that more profound sense of identity that energized the Jews and ensured their survival as a people? Again and again, American Jewish identity museums strip away the information and complication needed to answer that question, rendering it unclear just what Jewish identity might amount to other than the least common denominator among all those who call themselves Jews. What has Judaism been as a religion, a living congeries of beliefs, laws, and practices? Who have the Jews been as a people and what does Jewish peoplehood imply or require of them? How have those laws and the texts embodying them made their peace, or failed to make their peace, with American life? To what degree, for that matter, have certain threads of Jewish experience and Jewish thought contributed to forming the very curious and anomalous phenomenon that today's museum curators display as Jewish identity?
By neglecting this kind of specificity-the aspects of Jewish life that are the least up-to-the-minute American-the Jewish identity museum suggests that the real achievement of America is the successful shedding of that same, superfluous specificity: a sloughing-off of the very identity the museum was built to celebrate.
III. The Problem in Europe and in Israel
The condition I've been describing is not entirely unique to America, though of course emphases elsewhere vary. Consider the Jüdisches Museum Berlin, which opened in 2001 and was promptly hailed as marking a milestone in German-Jewish relations. There may be worse Jewish museums in the world than this one, but it is difficult to imagine any quite so banal and uninspiring. The largest of its kind in Europe, the Berlin museum is a national institution, devoted to exploring the history of a people whose host nation was once intent on eradicating it.
The Berlin museum also fits some aspects of the identity-museum model, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. Chronicling the history of Jewish travails and struggles against German racism, discrimination, and murder, it culminates in the triumph represented by the survival and revivification of the Jews and by the existence on German ground of this very museum. Because the Berlin museum is not in fact an American Jewish museum, and because the history it tells is infused with an incomparable degree of trauma, it hesitates to accord too much credit to Germany. And yet, though its narrative begins with an evocation of mass murder that will then interrupt the arc of Jewish success, it is meant to end, if not quite in mutual redemption, at least in a kind of mutual embrace. Moreover, one senses throughout a constant urge, despite the interruption of the Holocaust, to praise Germans and Germany for all they have done and continue to do for the Jews-and, through the Jews, for the world-almost as if this were a more familiar Jewish museum hailing the virtues of America.
Perhaps worst of all in this connection is the adoption by the museum of the American preference for generalizing the Jews out of their own identity. In the museum's catalog, W. Michael Blumenthal, until recently its director (and a former U.S. Treasury Secretary), explains that its story "far transcends" the history of German Jewry, demonstrating "a widely shared determination" to apply its lessons "to societal problems of today and tomorrow" and promoting "tolerance toward minorities in a globalized world."
So the museum both woos the German host and hails the shedding of overly Jewish particularity-with the Holocaust looming overhead. The museological results are almost schizophrenic. The building by Daniel Libeskind, with its twists and breaks and deliberately jarring internal passages, screams pain in deliberate (and overly obvious) allusion to the Holocaust. Yet the exhibition within the walls keeps straining to affirm harmony and forgiveness. Discordant historical facts seem only to get in the way: you have to watch brief films to get any historical background about serious problems in this long-term romance. And you are still left with only the vaguest notion of what Jews believed or how and why they survived. We are informed that learning and texts were highly valued in Jewish tradition, and we see an electronic page from the Talmud and a prayer book; but we're given no real sense of their content or how they shaped Jewish consciousness or Jewish life.
After its historical narrative reaches the Enlightenment, the museum finally seems to breathe a sigh of relief as, abandoning any effort to explain matters of substance, it turns instead to recounting the ways in which Jews became central figures in German banking, commerce, journalism, and the arts: activities that along with other examples of Jewish achievement are no doubt regarded as of greater contemporary interest. Throughout, the museum's interest in blurring tensions between Jews and Germans makes the German past seem more enlightened and the Jewish past less particular. Becoming a celebration of ersatz tolerance and fake universalism, the museum, like too many of its American counterparts, suggests that Jewish identity is best realized through its shrinkage.
The Jüdisches Museum Berlin's interest in blurring tensions between Jews and Germans makes the German past seem more enlightened and the Jewish past less particular.
Nor, I am sorry to report, is this an issue only within the Diaspora. In slightly different form, some of the same factors bedeviling Jewish museums elsewhere come into play at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, an institution as close to being a national museum as any in the Jewish state.
As I noted early on, national museums are not meant to be modest or self-effacing. Reflecting the vision of the nation that created them, they strive forthrightly to show how that nation thinks about itself and its place in the world, what it values, how it interprets its past. The Israel Museum adds another level of intricacy to this exercise because it is, like its nation, so young, and because the story it tells, like the story of the Jewish nation, is so old. It's thus a matter of special interest to see how the museum has chosen to present itself since a major redesign that was completed in 2010.
This is still an extraordinary museum, but the recent changes are significant. The most enduring impact of the historical collection is delivered not by the museum's Judaica, or its manuscripts, or its art works, but by its archeological objects, whose story is coordinated with the findings of biblical scholarship and comparative religion. That story is directly related to the story both of the Jews as a people and of the other peoples who have lived in the land now called Israel. But, in subtle ways, the museum's presentation tends to de-emphasize its Jewish-and therefore its national-element in a version of the same universalizing impulse we have been tracking elsewhere. The ambition, according to the museum's director James Snyder, is to "open visitors up to the experience of world culture." The museum itself, he suggests, "is really about intercultural resonance and inter-communal engagement," and its own "experiential journey is universal in nature and embracing of all time."
Think how strange a move this is for a museum that presumes, on the face of it, to be an advocate for the particular. The Israel Museum goes about the move, as I've noted, very subtly, and mainly by means of emphasis; in the core archeological exhibition, that emphasis falls specifically, and to an unsettling degree, on the word "land." Labels tell us that nearly every object here is from a different region of the Land, and that the Land is the crossroads of cultures, "home to peoples of different cultures and faiths for more than one and a half million years." We stand, the museum tells us, amid a confluence of influences and peoples.
True enough-and true, too, that in Jewish tradition, the centrality of the Land is indeed undeniable, with the land of Israel often referred to simply by the Hebrew word ha'aretz, the land. But what emerges in these historical displays is an apparent effort to avoid any equally emphatic attention to the presence in the Land of the People and the Religion that endowed it with its significance-to avoid, in short, any taint of particularism. As it traces the paths of all nations through the Land, the museum seems positively uncomfortable with the claims of Israel and Jews: an approach especially obtrusive in a museum not just about the land but about the nation, the people, and the national religion. It is difficult to imagine the Louvre or the British Museum assuming a comparably self-negating stance.
To be sure, the avoidance here has a history behind it. The idea of a national museum in "the Land" was first conceived by the East European sculptor Boris Schatz, who came to Palestine in 1906 and promptly created the Bezalel art school and museum in Jerusalem. When Marc Chagall visited in 1932, according to the Israel Museum's literature, he "thought that the museum was too ‘Jewish'": the very affliction that Jewish identity museums-and only Jewish identity museums-worry about to this day.
IV. The Problem of the Holocaust Museum
The particular is too particular. The Jew is too Jewish. The religion is too religious. The nation is too nationalistic. The Jewish-identity museum, unlike every other example I know of, undercuts the identity to which it is paying tribute, escaping to the apparent comfort of an Enlightenment vision but without the Enlightenment's confidence in its vision. In Germany and Israel, as in the United States, the museum's voice, at the very moment it might be raised in explication or celebration, is instead qualified, hesitant, self-effacing.
Why this unease and this wariness? Is there any realm immune from its doubts? Surely, I used to think, the Holocaust museum must be the exception, dedicated as it is to exploring the nature and the consequences of the Nazi evil that reached across all differences and variations and made Jewish identity the very center of its maleficent attention. Surely there is no equivocation about the Holocaust.
Well, surely there is. Let me offer one prime example: the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Every visitor to this museum, before gaining access to the galleries that tell the history of the Holocaust, must choose one of two doors through which to enter. One is invitingly labeled "Unprejudiced"; the other, illuminated in red, screams "Prejudiced." No contest, right? But the first one doesn't open; only the second does. Evidently, the guards at Auschwitz are not alone: we are all prejudiced.
Once in the galleries, you are presented with more evidence of intolerance's ubiquity. A streaming news ticker runs above panels exemplifying "Hate in America." Two Latinos are beaten on Long Island. A white supremacist shoots Jews in Los Angeles. A Sikh is murdered in a post-9/11 "hate crime." A homosexual student is brutally murdered in Wyoming. On one panel is a description of the Oklahoma City bombing; on another, the attacks of 9/11.
Walk a little farther and you come to a mock 1950s-style diner where a television monitor broadcasts a staged news video about a drunken teenage driver injuring his date on prom night. We are asked to vote for the party most responsible: the liquor-store owner who illegally sold the booze, the parents of the drunk driver, the teenager himself? "Think," we are urged by the signs: "Assume responsibility," "Ask questions," "Speak up." And still we haven't been led into the central exhibition about the Holocaust and the murder of six million Jews-not until we have successfully negotiated this "Tolerancenter," as it is called, which strains to tie together slavery, genocide, prejudice, discrimination, and hate crimes while educating even elementary-school pupils in "the connection between these large-scale events and the epidemic of bullying in today's schools."
The Museum of Tolerance is hardly alone. No Holocaust museum, it seems, can be complete without invoking other 20th-century genocides in Rwanda, Darfur, or Cambodia as proof that the supposed lessons of the Holocaust must be taught even more fervently than heretofore.
There are two problems at work in these kinds of analogies. The first is the immediate and almost reflexive urge to universalize the Holocaust, so that genocide is not "just" a matter of and for Jews. The second is the way this "universalization" takes place, reducing everything to the lowest and least significant common denominator. First come Auschwitz and Darfur, then come Auschwitz and bullying.
In tandem, the two impulses wreak havoc with both history and moral clarity. In his announcement of the plans for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, President Jimmy Carter hailed the opportunity to commemorate "eleven million innocent victims exterminated-six million of them Jews." But as Walter Reich, the founding director of the museum, has pointed out, the figure of eleven million was pulled out of thin air. Evidently, according to the historian Yehuda Bauer, it had been invented by the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal "in order to make non-Jews feel like they are part of us" and thus "create sympathy for the Jews." The effect has been rather the opposite. Historians suggest that perhaps a half-million non-Jews perished in Nazi death camps, not five or six million. So the inflated number, if anything, may well have served to undermine Wiesenthal's desire to create sympathy specifically with the Jews, while also setting a precedent for those who for any reason would wish to universalize the Holocaust into platitude.
Visitors to an Anne Frank exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance are asked to make pledges of their own. "I'll start attending my child's school-board meetings," one read during my visit.
This was evident, too, at the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam. When I visited more than a decade ago, the sober tour through the notorious annex where the young diarist and her family hid from the Nazis led into a video-laden gallery chronicling nearly every contemporary social injustice that could be enumerated. As the museum's website informs us, an Anne Frank School-they are being established all over the world-"obliges itself to stand up for freedom, justice, tolerance, and human dignity and to resolutely turn against any form of aggression, discrimination, racism, political extremism, and excessive nationalism."
As if in imitation, the Museum of Tolerance also recently mounted an exhibition about Anne Frank. A carefully constructed history gives way to a final gallery in which touchscreens display the Diary's supposed lessons for "making the world a better place" by, among other things, "Valuing Family," "Speaking Up," and "Appreciating Nature," with each theme accompanied by Anne's commentary and an example of how the principle might be applied today. Thus, under "Assuming Responsibility," we learn that, for Anne, people should "review their own behavior," and that a contemporary example of the same rule might be: "I'll not talk behind my friends' backs." Visitors are then asked to make pledges of their own. "I'll start attending my child's school-board meetings," one read during my visit. Another: "I'll keep my dog on the leash when we walk in the town forest."
Thus is history distilled into tripe, horror into effervescent inanity. Out of the history of the Holocaust, the museum teases unconvincing homilies to the effect that the root cause of genocide is prejudice and intolerance-by now an international delusion. The impulse to tell the Holocaust story only in the context of such elaborate generalizations is also what has helped justify its inclusion in school curricula and win public financing for museums. The Museum of Tolerance obliges with its own series of educational programs, including "Tools for Tolerance for Professionals": sensitivity training for educators, law-enforcement officers, and corporate leaders. The history that emerges from all this is history stripped of distinctions: that is, no history at all.
Actually, the deeper one looks at the Holocaust itself, the more unusual its historical circumstances become. Nor was the cause of the Nazi mass killings "intolerance" but something else, something still virulently prevalent in parts of the world and still scarcely understood: the murderous hatred of Jews. This is a difference not just in degree but in kind. And how central is intolerance to genocide, anyway? Many intolerant societies don't set up bureaucratic offices to supervise efficient mass murder. Many people who consider themselves very tolerant are nonetheless blind to their own hatreds. There are even intolerant people who would find genocide unthinkable.
Of course, I am dwelling on some of the most problematic examples of Holocaust museums. I could easily point out the contrasting virtues of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where the horrors unfold with calm and precision-until they overwhelm-or the main exhibition at the extraordinary United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. True, even Yad Vashem can't resist a homily, in the form of the message silently delivered when, after zigzagging downward and then upward through the exhibition the visitor emerges, after all that carnage, to behold the flowering Judean Hills and the strong, confident state of Israel; but this message, a Zionist one, is itself anchored in the most fundamental Jewish sources and the strongest of the Jewish people's millennial dreams. The Washington museum, more problematically, leads you from the history of the Holocaust, narrated and choreographed with such exquisite care as to take your breath away, into a series of changing exhibitions that mitigate the point with other examples of injustice, genocide, and, yes, intolerance.
The homiletical approach to the Holocaust has broken down almost all inhibitions about using the Holocaust as an analogy, even though the eagerness to analogize is a sure sign of misuse. To judge from recent history, moreover, the analogies with which we are bombarded, far from making genocide unthinkable, have helped make it seem commonplace. I'm not familiar with any other tales of historical trauma that feel obligated to end by saying-hey, you have to pay attention, this isn't just about us. But that, to repeat, is one of the crucial intellectual moves of secular Jewish identity in today's world.
V. The Exceptions
If my survey of Jewish museums and exhibitions has seemed a little intemperate, that is partly because I have largely omitted discussing permanent exhibitions that work, or temporary exhibitions that have created a lasting impact. A short list of these would include, for example, an exploration of Emma Lazarus at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City; Yeshiva University Museum's shows about the Dreyfus Affair or Jews in the American Civil War; an exhibition about Nazi propaganda and another on Nazi eugenics at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; an older exhibition in Israel's Ghetto Fighters' House Museum and an unexpectedly affecting Holocaust museum in Richmond, Virginia.
Common to all of these examples are a dedication to historical detail, a reluctance to create loose analogies that don't withstand scrutiny, and perhaps above all the sense that there is much more to Jewish identity than its secularized and politicized incarnation now prevalent in the museum world: something deserving of the deepest pride and most scrupulous study rather than the shallowest pride and least scrupulous study. It is sobering to think that this view, so dominant in the museum world, really does reflect the attitudes of a large number of contemporary Jews about themselves and their Jewishness; other evidence, notably the much-analyzed findings in the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews, seems to suggest that this is in fact the case. Shouldn't Jewish museums-so presumably preoccupied with virtuously "repairing the world"-start to think about repairing a bit of what they take to be their own subject?
Long deprived of the opportunity, today's Jewish museums in the former eastern bloc unabashedly celebrate the once-vibrant identity of their communities.
Finally, a recent special issue of the journal East European Jewish Affairs, dedicated to the revival of Jewish museums in Russia and the former eastern bloc, suggests that in those regions, at least, the unspoken rules might be quite different. Having been long deprived of the opportunity to speak about or examine the Jewish past openly, today's Jewish museums in the former eastern bloc unabashedly memorialize and celebrate the once-vibrant identity of their communities and seem to show little interest in the self-imposed cultural shrinkage that haunts Jewish identity elsewhere. The most important example of a new Jewish museum in this region is the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, with its main exhibition overseen by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett; although I haven't had the opportunity to visit it, I would like to think that it, too, succeeds in avoiding the pitfalls of its American and West European (and Israeli) counterparts.
Alas, for most of those counterparts I can't hold out much hope. Nothing, it seems, will shatter their paltry view of Judaism, Jewish history, and Jewish public responsibility. Minimize your profile, mute your pride; be overly indulgent, even perversely so, of the tastes and priorities of the surrounding culture; resist any hint of "difficult" scholarship or religious thought; avoid any sort of self-assertion that might infringe the dictates of political correctness or intellectual fashion: these are the defining characteristics of the modern Jewish identity museum. As for those who insist on holding out for a more rooted and substantive view of Jewish identity, they will have to rely on the small handful of exceptions, or start to think about what it would be like to create a new Jewish museum in the first third of the 21st century.
About the author
Edward Rothstein is critic at large for the Wall Street Journal. Links to reviews by him of Jewish and other identity museums can be found at the end of the present essay. Follow him on Twitter @EdRothstein.
Reviews by Edward Rothstein of Relevant Museums and Exhibitions
Jüdisches Museum Berlin
National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia
Jewish Museum London
Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, Berkeley
Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco
Israel Museum. Jerusalem
Illinois Holocaust Museum, Skokie
Derfner Judaica Museum, Hebrew Home for the Aged, the Bronx
Holocaust Museums in Israel
Los Angeles Nuseum of the Holocaust
Museum at Eldridge Street, New York
Kupferberg Holocaust Reserach Center, Queens College
Museum of Tolerance, Los Angeles
The Valmadonna Trust
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dreyfus Trial
Protocols of the Elders of Zion
History of Jews in New York
Jews in the New World
Abraham and Three Faiths New York Public Library
Illuminations and Jewish Texts
Resistance to the Nazis
Children and the Holocaust
France under the Nazis
Collaborators, Holocaust Museum
Crossing Borders: Books at Jewish Museum
Identity Museums on Display
National Museum of the American Indian
Museum of Chinese in America
1,001 Muslim Inventions, New York Hall of Science
Nordic Heritage Museum, Seattle
Church History Museum: Mormonism, Salt Lake City
Arab-American National Museum, Dearborn
Museo Alamedo, San Antonio
Problems with Indian Patrimony
Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco
Wing Luke Asian Museum, Seattle
Sacred and Secular Museums, Istanbul
American Indian Treaties, Washington, DC
Indian Art and Nagpra
Jefferson's SlaveS: National Museum of African-American History and Culture, Washington DC
- B'nai B'rith Museum Trove Will Go Public in Cincinnati
- Two major Jewish institutions have stepped in to provide a home for the art and artifacts of the B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum.…
B'nai B'rith International and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion will display the Klutznick collection at the HUC-JIR's Skirball Museum, located on the college's campus in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Klutznick's sacred and secular fine and decorative arts and social documents will be exhibited in galleries designated as the "B'nai B'rith Klutznick Collection." In addition, a select group of Klutznick artifacts will be loaned to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington to be displayed in its new building, slated for opening in 2020, according to a statement issued by the two institutions.
The Skirball was America's first officially established Jewish museum, originally named the Union Museum. The museum will collaborate with B'nai B'rith through online exhibitions and links disseminating information about the collection with other organizations, and the sponsoring of special programs and lectures.
B'nai B'rith transferred its archives to the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, also located on the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR.
"The acquisition of this historic collection creates unprecedented opportunities for community engagement on local, regional, national and international platforms. Integrating this collection and making it accessible through digital technology will be a priority, as the Skirball positions itself as a center of Jewish art and culture," Skirball Museum Director Abby Schwartz said in a statement.
- National confab examines challenges, opportunities for Jewish museums
- Hosted by the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, the 22nd annual conference capitalized on being held for the first time in the Bay Area, where technology, collaboration and experimentation are part of the region’s DNA.…
Just before Day 2 of this year's annual conference for the Council of American Jewish Museums, some 200 attendees perused the galleries of the Magnes museum. What they saw at the newly reborn institution - now a part of U.C. Berkeley - showcased both traditional materials and high-concept ideas in the form of an exhibition on the future of memory.
But as lively as the displays were, what caught the eye of the curators, educators and other museum professionals from around the country was a huge glass wall separating the public space from an archives and storage area.
"Ninety percent of our collection is here on site, and as you can see, it's in visible storage," Magnes curator Francesco Spagnolo explained. As part of the museum's emphasis on "open-sourcing our collection ... we are able to activate it for both researchers and the larger community."
This balance of preservation and openness epitomized the themes for the 2015 conference, "Open Source: Jewish Museums and Collaborative Culture."
Hosted by the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, the 22nd annual conference capitalized on being held for the first time in the Bay Area, where technology, collaboration and experimentation are part of the region's DNA.
It was designed to emphasize new thinking among Jewish museums coming to terms with significant changes in Jewish demography, general museum visitorship and digital technology.
The three-day conference began with a keynote from Nina Simon, whose 2010 book "The Participatory Museum" challenged cultural institutions to collaborate more deeply with their members, visitors and surrounding communities. Now director of the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, Simon argued that museums should strive less to "present" art and culture than to "invite meaningful action at all levels."
Culture isn't something you are given, "but something you do," she said.
The value of collaboration was echoed by Rabbi Noa Kushner, who spoke about starting The Kitchen, an innovative Jewish community in San Francisco, on similar principles. A kind of pop-up synagogue, The Kitchen serves the 20- and 30-somethings that Jewish museums (and other Jewish institutions) are desperate to attract.
Kushner's advice? Focus less on identity than action, since "Who is Jewish?" is a much less interesting question than "Who wants to do Jewish?"
A refrain throughout the conference was that the story of Jewish life, and its cast of characters, are changing rapidly.
Museum conference attendees view scale model of the 1915 Pan-Pacific expo.
Museum conference attendees view scale model of the 1915 Pan-Pacific expo.
Avi Decter, a co-founder and current board chair of CAJM, suggested that Jewish museums - and, by extension, the larger Jewish community - have been "bound by a master narrative." Now, however, there is "a growing diversity of people [affiliated with Jewish life] and a growing need for different narratives."
Museums, he said, would be wise to listen to their audiences and "let them help us understand which of these narratives is working."
Additionally, people spoke about museums having the capacity to offer a uniquely transformative space for education and community.
New York University professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the lead scholar for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, spoke via Skype from Warsaw. "Great museums are agents of transformation," she explained, noting that Poland's new museum has the capacity to tell the story of Jewish life in a way that no other Polish civic institution could.
Lori Starr, director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, explained that her San Francisco museum's potential for transformation takes place "in the way we engage with visitors wherever they are, and in whatever frame of mind they bring with them."
Designed without a permanent collection, the CJM was created to be flexible and responsive, allowing for a maximum of conversation, collaboration and storytelling, she said.
The question of how museums and visitors should use technology was a common topic of conversation. Timothy Frilingos, director of exhibitions at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, said that when a docent gives a tour to high school students, the first thing he or she might say is "put away your phone."
But for teens and millennials, will being asked to put away their technology prevent them from coming back?
Keir Winesmith, head of Web and Digital Platforms at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, tried to ally this anxiety by asking people to focus on their larger educational goals.
"Ultimately the stories you tell are more important than the technology itself," she said. "I'm often in the strange position of arguing against working with digital. ... Sometimes the best solution to a complicated museum problem is just a sign."
- Bay Area to Host National Jewish Museum Confab
- For the first time, the Council of American Jewish Museums will hold its annual conference in the Bay Area March 8-10. The host institutions are the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley.…
For the first time, the Council of American Jewish Museums will hold its annual conference in the Bay Area March 8-10. The host institutions are the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley.
More than 100 professionals and volunteers are expected to attend the conference.
Members of the CAJM span from the Alaska Jewish Museum in Anchorage to the Jewish Children's Museum in Brooklyn, New York, to the Washington State Jewish Historical Society in Seattle.
This year's 22nd annual conference is titled "Open Source: Jewish Museums and Collaborative Culture." It will explore how California's cutting-edge experiments in social, cultural, political and economic realms can inform museum practices, and how Jewish museums are breaking new ground by putting an emphasis on conversation and community over material collections.
In addition to the region's two Jewish museums, the Oakland Museum California and the California Historical Society are providing meeting sites. The gathering will kick off March 7 with a visit to Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco for a behind-the-scenes look at the building.
- New Role for a CAJM Colleague
- Anita Kassof, co-chair of the 2015 CAJM conference, former Deputy Director at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and former Associate Director at the Jewish Museum Maryland, is the new, "industrious" Executive Director at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.…
Former associate director at the Jewish Museum of Maryland Anita Kassof, who is "thrilled to be back in Baltimore and to be committing to this community again," has found her new home and her latest mission at the Baltimore Museum of Industry as its new executive director.
Kassof, who has spent the past four years commuting to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, officially takes over at BMI this month. While she loved the work and deeply respected her colleagues in New York, she said her ties to Baltimore remained strong.
"My husband and I underestimated just how deeply rooted we are in the Baltimore community and how committed we are to this place," she said. "I tell people I feel like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz.' It took me a little while to be away to realize that there's no place like home."
Kassof, 51, brings years of curatorial and directorial experience to her new position. In addition to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, she spent 11 years at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, three years at Baltimore City Life Museums and was a founding staff member at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where she worked for 12 years.
"It was a really privileged moment to be there," recalled Kassof. "Holocaust survivors were coming forward for the first time. They had raised their families ... and they were just starting to tell their stories, so for the first time they were giving us their materials and they were sharing their experiences with us."
Though the majority of Kassof's experience is at Jewish museums, the skills translate.
"Much of the work of ethnic-specific museums has really broad relevance to the museum profession," she said, noting her past responsibilities to cultivate new audiences, care for collections, identify and secure funding and design and build collections relevant to new audiences - all of which "[have] absolute relevance to any museum."
"Anita's background in museum leadership, curatorial experience, and her strong ties to the Baltimore community will make her an excellent leader for the BMI," said Streett Baldwin, chair of the BMI board of trustees and director at CPA firm, Ellin & Tucker. "The staff and board alike are looking forward to having her join the museum and lead the institution into our next chapter."
"My first several months will involve a lot of listening," to trustees and staff, said Kassof, adding she's also very eager to gather input from local community leaders, elected officials, business leaders and teachers to find out how "they envision the BMI and how they see this as part of their lives." She would also like to launch a formal strategic planning process within the year. She added, "And I absolutely want to ramp up the exhibitions, both to dive into the existing collection and also how we might interpret industry," citing technology, health care and finance, in order to look at "industry" with a wider scope. "So we're looking forward and honoring our past."
"I'D LIKE [VISITORS] TO BE INTRIGUED BY WHAT INDUSTRY IS TODAY, WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR BALTIMORE'S FUTURE, AND HOW ARE CONTEMPORARY INDUSTRIES CONTRIBUTING TO BALTIMORE'S RENAISSANCE?"
Acknowledging the importance industry has played in Baltimore's past, she said that traditional manufacturing is still very relevant "but that there is a future to industry." She noted some BMI exhibits that are already edging toward that, such as Video Game Wizards - Transforming Science and Art into Games and the Maryland Engineering Challenges, both of which engage younger visitors.
Kassof understands an important component of the visitor experience involves nostalgia and the "Oh wow! I didn't know that" about Baltimore's history, but she said, "I'd also like them to be intrigued by what industry is today, what does it mean for Baltimore's future, and how are contemporary industries contributing to Baltimore's renaissance?"
A visit to the museum needs to be relevant, and it needs to resonate, she said. "Where you really hook visitors and where you really create meaning is when they can somehow find a personal intersection with the museum."
Kassof hopes to create partnerships with other museums as well and intends to reach out to her colleagues at the American Visionary Art Museum and the Maryland Science Center for possible collaborations that could enhance what she described as an ongoing challenge to lure visitors to the south side of the Inner Harbor tourist area, a part of the city - between Federal Hill and Locust Point - that she said is undergoing a lot of change.
A place like BMI is an important anchor and "cultural institutions can be an agent of change in neighborhoods, and they need to have a voice at the table," she said. Especially for an area in transition, added Kassof, the BMI is "an authentic voice that honors the past."
- A New Warsaw Museum Devoted to Jewish-Polish History
- Ninety per cent of Poland’s Jews died in the Holocaust. But now a bold – architecturally and intellectually – new museum looks beyond the horror to celebrate a common heritage…
(See fully illustrated article at http://on.ft.com/1xNhNe9)
At sites of atrocity, particles of desolation linger in the air for years like reproaches to mankind. Such a place, for more than four decades after the second world war, was the Muranów district of Warsaw. The largest Jewish ghetto in German-occupied Europe, Muranów was reduced to rubble by the Nazis after its desperate inhabitants, facing deportation and near-certain death in concentration camps, staged a doomed four-week uprising in 1943.
A Monument to the Ghetto Heroes was erected in 1948 on a patch of wasteland in Muranów, and it still stands today. The bleak setting of this stone and bronze monument, shaped like a wall, was reinforced by the shabby apartment blocks, ill-lit streets and poorly stocked shops that characterised Muranów, like most of Warsaw, during Poland's subjection under Soviet-imposed communism.
With the advent of democracy in 1989, prosperity and fresh paint started to brighten this long-neglected quarter of the Polish capital, the scene of so much horror and degradation in the mid-20th century. Now the crowning achievement is only days away: the formal opening, on October 28, of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, a $120m project as bold in its intellectual conception as in its architectural design.
Its creators have deliberately situated the museum, a glass and copper building whose spacious interior is filled with radiant light and a swirling wall, opposite the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. The idea is to put a stamp of life and renewal on what was once a landscape of unremitting devastation and death. "The museum is a message of hope on a site of genocide," says Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a Canadian-born professor at New York University, who is the programme director of the museum's core exhibition. "For me, this project represents the new Poland."
Designed by the Finnish architects Lahdelma & Mahlamäki, the museum is making its grand debut amid a burst of enthusiasm in Poland to bring the nation's Jewish heritage out from the shadows and to encourage the increasingly energetic revival of Jewish life in Warsaw and smaller, provincial cities. "The miracle of the rediscovery of Jewish Poland and the re-emergence of Jewish life, albeit on a small scale, are making a real impact. Non-Jewish Poles are now celebrating their country's Jewish heritage," says Jonathan Ornstein, the New York-born director of the Jewish Community Centre in Kraków, Poland's second city.
Nevertheless the museum, open for cultural and educational events since April 2013, seems sure to stir controversy. For, in contrast to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, or Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the new Warsaw museum is not specifically about the mass murder of Jews in the second world war. In fact, only one of the core exhibition's eight galleries, which cover a combined area of more than 4,000 sq m, deals with the Holocaust.
The international historians and museum experts who developed the core exhibition do not skate over the Holocaust - far from it. But their chief purpose is to narrate and celebrate the story of Jewish civilisation in Poland, a story that spans the arrival of Ashkenazi Jews from western and central Europe in the Middle Ages to the rebirth of Jewish communities in contemporary Poland. In this historical sweep the Holocaust, unquestionably the central and most terrifying fact of the story, is treated as one element of a seamless narrative.
Throughout, the threads of Poland's Jewish past are intertwined with those of its history as a state in such a way as to make it hard to imagine Polish Jews without their Christian neighbours or vice versa. "We're trying to show the history of Polish Jews as an integral part of the history of Poland," says Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.
One example is the museum's exhibit on Michal Landy, a Jewish high-school student in Warsaw who was killed during an anti-tsarist protest in 1861 as he retrieved a cross from a wounded demonstrator. The death of a Jewish boy holding an object sacred to Polish Catholicism is a symbol of brotherhood across the religious divide that perfectly suits the museum's purposes.
To date, no big European or US museum has tackled the history of a nation's Jewish inhabitants with such emphasis on the theme of integration. "Elsewhere in the world, museums tend to focus on the Holocaust, not on 1,000 years of Jewish life in Poland, as if life is less important than death," observes Dariusz Stola, a history professor and the museum's director.
That such an approach should emerge in Poland, the historical heartland of European Jewry, is particularly striking. Since the rise of modern European anti-Semitism in the late 19th century, and especially since the Holocaust, which resulted in the deaths of 90 per cent of Poland's prewar Jewish population of 3.3 million, many Jews outside Poland have tended to regard Poles, a predominantly Catholic people, as riddled with hostility towards Jews.
With only some exaggeration, Ornstein says: "The traditional view of Jewish communities in the US and elsewhere was that Poland was a hellish place where the Germans committed genocide - but the Poles would have done it, but for the Germans being more efficient.
"As a public-private partnership involving the Polish government, the city of Warsaw and Poland's Jewish Historical Institute, the museum is part of an effort, now more than 20 years old, by the new democratic state and independent professional and social groups to rebuild trust between Poland's non-Jewish majority and Jews both in and outside Poland. The core exhibition takes care, therefore, to address historical episodes of Polish anti-Semitism and outright violence towards Jews.
Take the July 1941 rampage in the eastern town of Jedwabne, where Poles, unprompted but against the backdrop of Nazi occupation, slaughtered hundreds of their Jewish neighbours. Jan Gross, the Polish-born US historian who documented this crime in his book Neighbours, published in 2001, came under attack from Polish nationalists, who accused him of distorting evidence and denigrating Poles.
But in that year, on the 60th anniversary of the murders, Aleksander Kwasniewski, Poland's then president, took the brave step of making a formal apology for Jedwabne on behalf of the Polish nation. The museum exhibition tells the story of Jedwabne, setting it in the wider context of Polish Jewry's extermination at Nazi hands.
"In proportion to the killings elsewhere under Nazi occupation, Jedwabne was minor. But the important thing is that it was Poles, not Germans, doing the killing," says Stola. "As a nation, we have finally developed a language to speak about difficult historical topics. This wasn't possible under the communist system. Twenty years ago, people were over-sensitive and would say, ‘You can't criticise your own nation.' Today people say, ‘Why not? It's my job as a citizen.' So it's possible to speak about anti-Semitic prejudice today without being labelled anti-Polish."
Thanks to postwar border changes and population transfers, as well as the annihilation of the Jews, Poland under communism was, for the first time since the 14th century, an overwhelmingly Catholic country. But anti-Semitism in the late 1940s and 1950s gained strength from the view that communism was an abomination assisted in its arrival from Moscow by Polish Jewish acolytes of Josef Stalin. The roles of Jakub Berman and Hilary Minc, two devoted Stalinists, in consolidating the one-party dictatorship buttressed this argument.
In a later episode, well covered by the exhibition, an anti-Semitic campaign was fomented in 1968 from within the communist party by Mieczyslaw Moczar, a nationalist hardliner in charge of the police. This campaign, Europe's most vicious outburst of government-sponsored anti-Semitism since the second world war, resulted in the emigration of thousands of Polish Jews, including eminent university professors, authors, doctors and lawyers. By 1971, scarcely 10,000 Jews remained in Poland, and most preferred to draw as little attention to themselves as possible.
Even so, the Solidarity movement that pushed the communists out of power in 1989 contained some highly influential Jewish intellectuals, notably the historian Bronislaw Geremek, who later became Poland's foreign minister, and Adam Michnik, now editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, a leading newspaper.
There are no official estimates of Poland's Jewish population today. Pawel Spiewak, director of the Jewish Historical Institute, puts it at about 20,000. Other experts estimate that 200,000 of Poland's 38.5 million people may have Jewish roots without being fully or even vaguely aware of them.
What seems clear is that anti-Semitism in Poland - though far from eradicated, as one public opinion survey after another shows - is a more marginal phenomenon than it used to be. This is partly down to the fresh air of free civic discussion blowing through Poland's young, vigorous democracy. But it is also down to the excitement, curiosity and surprise of a nation learning, after the fear and silence of the communist era, just how much Jewish culture contributed to Poland's past.
What is more, Poland has escaped most of the anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic violence that erupted earlier this year in western European cities such as Berlin, Brussels and Paris. Konstanty Gebert, a Gazeta Wyborcza columnist, Jewish activist and pro-democracy campaigner in the 1980s, sums up: "I feel I'm safe in Warsaw, not so safe in Paris."
The revival of Jewish life in Poland differs from that in Germany, where it is driven by the arrival of Jewish immigrants - about 220,000 since German reunification in 1990 - from eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
In Poland the revival is homegrown, though it benefits from US Jewish support, and the rediscovery of the nation's Jewish past is often led by Catholic and non-religious Poles, not by Polish Jews.
Such is the case, 170km southeast of Warsaw, in Lublin, where Jews comprised more than a third of the city's 120,000 people in 1939 but now number only a few dozen. Besides deporting most Lublin Jews to the Belzec death camp, the Nazis razed the city's Jewish quarter house by house. Postwar communist planners then placed wide roads, lawns and a huge car park where once there had been synagogues, Jewish shops and apartment buildings.
In two strokes, a centuries-old dimension of Lublin's history vanished - but now it is reappearing in altered guise. For 20 years Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre, a local cultural institute, has meticulously amassed documentary material for exhibitions that pay tribute to the city's Jewish heritage. The institute draws its name partly from the 14th-century gate that used to connect Lublin's Jewish and Christian quarters, and partly from the theatrical career of its founder, Tomasz Pietrasiewicz, an opposition activist in the communist era.
"When I started out, I knew nothing about the Jews of Lublin," says Pietrasiewicz. "When a friend told me that, not far from the Grodzka Gate, there used to be a Jewish quarter before the war, it was a shock. I had to ask myself, ‘How is it possible I knew nothing of these people? What can I do to change the situation?' Over the past 20 years, my work has been a kind of moral reaction to this discovery."
The institute now houses thousands of photographs and other memorabilia, as well as thousands of hours of recorded memories of the city's inhabitants, all contributing to recreate the atmosphere of Jewish Lublin in the pre-Holocaust era.
Arguably, the lovingly restored synagogue and Jewish cemetery of Chmielnik, a former shtetl 225km south of Warsaw, are Poland's outstanding example of what can be achieved at local level when civic pride and a nose for economic opportunity are married with political courage and moral purpose.
In large part, these projects are the work of Jaroslaw Zatorski, the mayor of Chmielnik for 21 years. A man who speaks as if he has never minced a word in his life, the mayor says that he belongs to no political party - "I keep away from political parties like the devil from holy water."
Jews accounted for four in five of Chmielnik's more than 10,000 prewar inhabitants. Virtually all were transported to Treblinka as the Nazis wiped out the shtetl in 1942-1943. The rest gradually left Poland after a pogrom in the nearby city of Kielce in July 1946 killed 42 Jews, including three from Chmielnik. Wartime atrocities and postwar violence alike were buried in almost total silence in Chmielnik and surrounding villages until the collapse of communism opened up a space for public discussion.
"When I started as mayor, this whole subject was foreign to me," says Zatorski, echoing the words of Pietrasiewicz in Lublin. "But I treated it as my duty to take care of the history that had been forgotten for 40 years. I decided to restore the completely destroyed cemetery. I told the local people, ‘Think of the devastated Polish cemeteries in Ukraine. Imagine what Jews think when they come here and see cows roaming around the Jewish cemetery.'"
The synagogue was renovated at a cost of 7m zloty (£1.3m). Four million zloty came from EU funds, Poland's culture ministry contributed 1m zloty and Zatorski found the other 2m zloty from his local government budget. He encountered, and still encounters, resistance: one political opponent, who is challenging him in Chmielnik's mayoral election next month, refers to the synagogue as "that object", rather than calling it by its real name, and says the money would have been better spent on modernising the town's sports facilities.
Zatorski persevered, rebuilding the synagogue as a museum and cultural forum whose central feature, a bimah (platform) made entirely of glass, is touted as the only one of its kind in the world. Around the bimah are exhibits of Chmielnik's prewar life such as prayer books, a Hanukkah lamp, cutlery for fish, a shofar (horn), a violin and a brass menorah. By using the synagogue not primarily as a site of mourning but for modern educational and cultural purposes, Zatorski is, like the creators of the Warsaw museum, challenging the mental picture of Poland as nothing but a vast Jewish cemetery that many Israelis and American Jews have held since 1945.
"We don't focus on the Holocaust but concentrate on the cohabitation and tolerance of the two communities over history - Poles and Jews. This plays into Poland's sense of its place in a Europe of unity, toleration and dialogue," Zatorski says.
It is tempting, but too cynical, to regard initiatives such as the Chmielnik synagogue, the Lublin cultural institute and the new Warsaw museum as schemes to drum up tourism or even to rehabilitate Poland in the eyes of foreign Jews. The principal inspiration behind all three projects strikes me as something more elemental - a national yearning to recover lost memory.
Nazism and communism clamped 20th-century Poland in a 50-year vice of carnage and captivity. No less damaging was the determination of the two totalitarianisms to destroy or suppress physical evidence and cultural awareness of Poland's past. The restoration of the nation's Jewish heritage is one part - but an essential part - of Poland's larger effort to reconstruct itself as a nation whole and free.
Tony Barber is the FT's Europe editor
- Suspect Held in Jewish Museum Killings
- French authorities announced Sunday that they had arrested a man in the killing of three people on May 24 at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, identifying the suspect as a 29-year-old Frenchman with a long criminal history who had traveled to Syria last year to join with radical Islamist fighters there.…
PARIS - The French authorities announced Sunday that they had arrested a man in the killing of three people last month at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, identifying the suspect as a 29-year-old Frenchman with a long criminal history who had traveled to Syria last year to join with radical Islamist fighters there.
The authorities said that they apprehended the man, identified as Mehdi Nemmouche, during a routine customs check on Friday as he arrived by bus in Marseille from Brussels. They said he was carrying an assault rifle and revolver matching descriptions of those used in the deadly shootings on May 24 at the museum in Brussels.
French and Belgian officials said there was evidence linking Mr. Nemmouche to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, a jihadist group operating in Syria that until earlier this year maintained ties to Al Qaeda.
European officials said that the killings appear to be the first committed in Europe by a European citizen returning from the battlefields of Syria, a brand of violence that European officials have feared and warned against for months.
But it was not clear what help, if any, Mr. Nemmouche might have received from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or any other group in allegedly planning and carrying out the attack in Belgium, or whether his motivation was linked to his time in Syria.
Officials in France were quick to stress the link. President François Hollande immediately praised the "effectiveness of our police forces" in preventing violence from the "jihadists" who have returned to France from Syria, saying the suspect in the Brussels killings had been stopped "as soon as he set foot in France."
But the case may yet raise questions about the ability of law enforcement and intelligence services to track potential suspects traveling to and from Syria. Mr. Nemmouche, who was found carrying a hat and shirt similar to one seen in the museum surveillance video of the shooting and a video taking credit for the attack, had been identified by the authorities as a potential jihadist at the completion of his last prison sentence in late 2012, but apparently was not placed under surveillance before departing for Syria shortly after his release.
Video cameras at the museum show a lone gunman pulling a Kalashnikov-type assault rifle from a bag on May 24, firing it and leaving on foot. Four people there were shot, three of whom died.
But his arrest is likely to intensify fears in Europe that European citizens returning from the battlefields of Syria may bring violence with them.
As many as 3,000 Europeans, including more than 700 French, are thought to have fought or to be fighting in Syria, most of them with the jihadist groups opposed to the government of Bashar al-Assad. France, with Europe's largest Muslim population and a deep pool of anger and resentment among the country's poor black and Arab youth, has already arrested dozens of men upon their return from Syria, charging some under the country's antiterror laws and warning people thinking of traveling to Syria to join the conflict that their activities will be closely followed by the intelligence services.
Mr. Nemmouche was born in Roubaix, an impoverished industrial city in northeastern France near the border with Belgium.
He had been convicted seven times, on several occasions for driving without a license but also for violent robbery, and began a series of imprisonments in 2001, according to François Molins, the state prosecutor in Paris. Mr. Nemmouche appeared to have become radicalized during his time in prison; during his final stay, a five-year sentence, "he distinguished himself by his extremist proselytism," Mr. Molins told reporters on Sunday, and fell in with other "radicalized Islamists."
Prison administrators "signaled" Mr. Nemmouche to the French intelligence services upon his release from prison, on Dec. 4, 2012, Mr. Molins said. Within about three weeks, however, Mr. Nemmouche had left France, bound for Brussels, London, Beirut, Istanbul and, ultimately, Syria, Mr. Molins said. French intelligence services believe it was there that he joined ISIS.
But they were unable to track him within Syria, Mr. Molins said. French intelligence learned on March 18 of his departure from Syria, when German officials informed the French that he had arrived at Frankfurt Airport. After leaving Syria earlier this year, Mr. Nemmouche made what Mr. Molins described as an apparent effort to "cover his tracks," traveling to Istanbul, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, before returning to Europe via Frankfurt.
In the afternoon of May 24, a Saturday, a man dressed in a blue shirt and dark baseball cap, with two black bags draped over his right shoulder, strode into the Jewish Museum in Brussels. He killed Emanuel and Mira Riva, Israeli tourists, with shots from a .38-caliber revolver, Mr. Molins said. The man then extracted what the authorities described as a folding-stock Kalashnikov assault rifle and fired again, killing a French woman who worked as a volunteer at the museum and critically wounding a Belgian man.
Weapons, including an assault rifle with a loaded magazine and a round in the chamber, and clothing matching the descriptions of those of the killer were discovered in Mr. Nemmouche's possession in southern France on Friday when he arrived in Marseille on an overnight bus, investigators said.
Investigators also found a GoPro video recorder and a piece of white fabric inscribed, in Arabic, with the insignia of ISIS and the words "God is great," according to Mr. Molins.
Those items, along with the two firearms, appear in a 40-second video found on a digital camera in Mr. Nemmouche's possession. In that recording, a man who does not appear but whose "voice seems to be that of Mehdi Nemmouche," the prosecutor said, explains that he has made the video to show that he was responsible for the killings, as the GoPro had malfunctioned during the attack.
Mr. Nemmouche has been transferred to the headquarters of France's domestic intelligence agency outside Paris, officials said. He has not been formally charged, and Belgian prosecutors have requested his extradition. He has remained largely silent since his arrest, according to Mr. Molins, the prosecutor.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has made no public statement confirming or denying that Mr. Nemmouche was a member. Members of other Syrian rebel groups expressed frustration with ISIS and questioned the motives of foreign jihadists in Syria.
"I never heard of this jihadi in Brussels," said Maher al-Hamoud, a commander in the Syrian province of Hama for the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. "But people like these are delaying the victory in Syria."
A former lawyer for Mr. Nemmouche, Soulifa Badaoui, said that he had been moved "from foster home to foster home" as a child, and became homeless at age 17.
"He was not a young man anchored in crime," Ms. Badaoui told the French television station BFMTV. "He was a young man with difficulties of a personal sort," she said, but also "endearing," "respectful" and "sharp-minded."
If Mr. Nemmouche is found guilty of the killings in Brussels, the case could recall the killings carried out in March 2012 in southern France by Mohammed Merah, a self-proclaimed member of Al Qaeda. Mr. Merah, a French-Algerian dual citizen raised in a poor neighborhood outside Toulouse, spent time in prison and was believed to have traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan for combat training with Islamist fighters. He killed three French soldiers and, later, a rabbi and three Jewish children outside a Jewish day school.
- Hush Lifted Over Awards for Nation's Libraries and Museums
- The Yiddish Book Center is among ten institutions that will receive the prestigious National Medal for Museum and Library Service. First Lady Michelle Obama will award medals to honorees at a special White House celebration on May 8th.…
WASHINGTON - When she was 16, Ashley Gagnay did not know that beets and carrots grew underground or that lemons ripened on trees. She had to learn those lessons at a program sponsored by the Children's Garden at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Now 21, she teaches those basics to 4-year-olds enrolled in a similar program at the garden.
"I have become more aware of the environment around me and how important it is, which can be hard in a city," said Ms. Gagnay, who is from Manhattan. Brooklyn Botanic Garden, she said, now "feels like a second home."
The program that is so important to Ms. Gagnay is one of the reasons that Brooklyn Botanic Garden will be honored on Thursday at the White House with the nation's highest award for museums and libraries. The award, the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, will also go to nine other institutions from across the country, not all of them traditional libraries or museums. The first lady, Michelle Obama, will hand out the medals.
The other winners this year are the Chicago Public Library; the Children's Museum of Indianapolis; the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District; the Mid-Continent Public Library in Independence, Mo.; the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn.; the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh; the Octavia Fellin Public Library in Gallup, N.M.; the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman; and the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.
"The prime criteria is the impact they are having on their community," said Susan Hildreth, director of the Institute of Library and Museum Services, which chooses the medal's winners. The groups must develop "programs and exhibits that are relevant" to their cities, town or neighborhoods.
The 10 winners were selected from about 100 organizations that applied for the medal, which is given annually. Each winner will receive a $5,000 grant, which often "is used to support existing public outreach programs," Ms. Hildreth said.
The Yiddish Book Center introduces students to modern Yiddish literature to help save the language from fading away as an older generation of Jews dies. The center has collected more than a million books in the past 34years.
"We literally pulled books out of garbage cans and off street corners," said Aaron Lansky, the center's founder and president. "Our goal is to put old books in the hands of new readers, so we have distributed books to libraries across the world."
In the past five years, the library has posted 12,000 books online that have been downloaded more than 100,000 times, Mr. Lansky said. "We're pushing the envelope of what it means to be a library."
In Las Vegas, the library is using demographic data about the area's 1.5 million people in figuring out what books to buy and services to offer, said Jeanne Goodrich, the district's executive director.
Jobs in Las Vegas are "very much service industry-based, and most of those jobs require online applications," Ms. Goodrich said. "There is a stampede every morning to the computer lab so people can create résumés and submit job applications."
Back in New York, more than 150,000 children from the five boroughs get their hands dirty each year at the Children's Garden in Brooklyn by participating in programs produced in a partnership with the Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment. The garden's urban farm annually produces 4,300 pounds of food, which often goes to the children and their families.
"We have picky eaters who are now urging their siblings to eat zucchini because they grew it," said Scot Medbury, president of Brooklyn Botanic Garden. "If there's extra, it goes to the food bank."
- For Audiences as Varied as an Ark Full of Animals
- The Times critic praises and appraises the enormous, engaging, and interactive Noah's Ark exhibition at L.A.'s Skirball Cultural Center.…
LOS ANGELES - As you push on metal bars, a towering 16-foot giraffe with a mosaic body stretches its head. Flamingos with fly-swatter feet and pink-purse bodies promenade past, guided by puppeteers. A child turning a crank sets off sparks of lightning, signaling an approaching storm. And a moving rubber ramp lifts small animals, two by two, into an enormous ark made of unpainted fir.
Such are the creatures and creations that welcome visitors to "Noah's Ark" at the Skirball Cultural Center here. Inspired by the biblical tale, this 8,000-square-foot indoor playground includes about 400 life-size animal constructions, many of them interactive machines. It is the most extraordinary children's exhibition I have seen.
I am not interested, though, simply in this ark's brilliant conception (or in trying to juxtapose its sensations with those of Darren Aronofsky's film "Noah"). This exhibition is powerful partly because it forces us to pay attention to each animal in all its strangeness. Each creature, with its eccentric assemblage of found objects and mechanisms, is a singular world with its own idiosyncrasies and principles; by immersing yourself in one, you begin to understand others. And that brings us to one of the more vexing themes in the contemporary museum world - the nature of identity - that lies beneath the surface of this unusual institution and requires more exploration.
This season, the Skirball completed its 30-year master plan with a final building on its 15-acre campus, which now attracts 600,000 visitors a year. The center, which first opened here in the Santa Monica Mountains in 1996 (and is bolstered by a $150 million endowment), is designed by the architect Moshe Safdie, while its conceptual vision has been nurtured by its charismatic founding president, Uri D. Herscher. (The Ark was created in 2007.)
Photo: David Walter Banks for The New York Times
And what is the Skirball about? What is the vision that encompasses a performing arts space, conference halls, libraries, event spaces, gardens and educational programs, and that plays a vibrant role in Los Angeles cultural life with lectures, dance, film and music?
Its origins are in the oldest Jewish museum in the United States, which was established in 1913 in Cincinnati at the Reform movement's seminary, Hebrew Union College. In 1972 the philanthropist Jack Skirball underwrote the museum's move to Los Angeles. Later, he ensured that it would be at the heart of this center, which he created with the guidance of Mr. Herscher. The Skirball now holds one of the nation's largest collections of Judaica and related objects: more than 30,000 items, many on display in an ambitious permanent exhibition. That is one reason the Skirball calls itself a Jewish institution. It also describes itself as universalist, multicultural and multiethnic, but Mr. Herscher stresses that this is actually a reflection of its Jewish character.
This gives the Skirball an unusual place in the spectrum of identity museums. Typically, such museums are created by immigrant or minority groups to trace their history, demonstrate their sufferings and celebrate their triumphs, ending with an assertive embrace of their identities. This narrative shapes recent museums about Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Arab Americans, Hispanic Americans - and with fundamental modifications - black Americans and American Indians.
But the Jewish American museum narrative is subtly different, and at the Skirball, starkly so. In its literature, the Skirball says it seeks "to build a community including every ethnic and cultural identity." And, at the end of its main exhibition, a video dramatizes that dream: Faces of different ethnicities morph into one another, demonstrating an interchangeable unity.
Jewish American identity here sees its triumph partly as dissolution: not in religious particularity, but in secular universalism; not in distinctiveness, but in resemblance. Aspects of these ideas appear in other Jewish museums, like the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. (Variations even appear in the Israel Museum, a Jewish-identity museum with a national focus that only obliquely embraces its national identity.)
There is a tradition behind these attitudes. The New York Society for Ethical Culture, with its emphasis on universal ethical teachings, grew out of similar impulses in 1876; it was started by Felix Adler, who had intended to become a Reform Jewish rabbi like his father. The Skirball continues the tradition: Mr. Herscher was ordained as a Reform rabbi, as was Jack Skirball. Both left the pulpit. Skirball made his fortune first as a movie producer (of Hitchcock's "Saboteur" in 1942 and "Shadow of a Doubt" in 1943) and then in real estate, before working with Mr. Herscher.
The main exhibition's narrative treats Jewish history as a progressive series of encounters with other nations, reaching its apotheosis in the United States, where an emphasis is placed on the development of secular and political universalism. American Jews are said to embrace the message of Passover, for example, by "taking active roles in civic life and supporting the global struggle for human rights." One of the most dramatic displays is a reproduction in two-thirds scale of the Statue of Liberty's torch.
In fact, while the exhibition broadly surveys some aspects of Jewish belief and alludes to the diversity of Jewish life, the spirit of celebration here comes more from superseding traditional identity than from embracing it - an inversion of the usual identity museum theme. And while identity museums often end up distorting history by failing to see it whole, at the Skirball we can glimpse some flaws of universalism: It can lead to sentimental generalities, and if universalism becomes the main mode of seeing, much is also being missed.
These issues reverberate in Skirball's Ark. The biblical tale is secularized (there is no God), and the Ark becomes what the Skirball calls "a symbol of human resilience." And while the biblical rainbow was a divine promise, here another message appears projected on a wall: "Build a Better World."
In the Skirball literature, the Ark is a demonstration of the center's doctrines, sounding chords of contemporary virtue: "The diverse menagerie of Noah's Ark serves as a metaphor for human society"; it encourages children "to work together for the greater good, to strengthen connections within and among families, to value diversity within community, to respect and protect minorities."
Museum aides emphasize such messages, and the Ark design encourages cooperative interaction. But its power lies elsewhere. A lion with a straw mane and chopstick whiskers is lying down with a metallic lamb. A zebra's haunches are wind turbines. An Asian elephant really is Asian: made of a gong from Thailand, vegetable steamers from Laos and lokta paper from Nepal. Encountering these creatures, we become like postdiluvian children, just beginning to make sense of a new world, exhilarated by its possibilities.
Outside in the arroyo garden, a companion sculpture created by Ned Kahn with Mr. Safdie is called "Rainbow Arbor"; it is a curved metal arc with mist sprayers that, in sunlight, creates natural versions of the biblical symbol arcing through the air. The exhibition becomes a celebration of play, inspiring fascination, reviving wonder. How bland and impractical universalism seems in contrast. And how varied and astonishing the world's particularity becomes.
Such particularism can't be done without, which is why Skirball can frustrate with some of its preoccupations; it is only through our individuality and difference that we learn to see anything at all. Universalism is also needed, of course. The challenge is not to see one way or the other, but both at the same time.
- Benefactors Gives MFA a Solid Base in Judaica
- Recently philanthropist Lynn Schusterman made a donation of 119 objects to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, an important infusion into a collection that, until now, numbered just 12 works.…
The billionaire collector from Oklahoma was in Boston two years ago when a friend invited her to visit the newly built Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts. Lynn Schusterman was impressed. But the Jewish philanthropist noticed an enormous hole in the MFA's collection.
The largest museum in Boston owned barely any relics of Jewish life and customs. Judaica is an increasingly popular field that features objects used for religious occasions.
Thanks to Schusterman, that has changed. This week the MFA will announce that Schusterman has given the museum 119 objects, an important infusion into a collection that, until now, numbered just 12 works. She has also given an undisclosed amount of money so the MFA can conserve and study the works as well as use the pieces to develop school programs.
"For us, this is a foundational gift," said Marietta Cambareri, the museum's Judaica curator. "This gives us a Judaica collection to work with and puts [the museum] on a footing nationally."
The MFA has been trying to improve its holdings, having spent nearly $500,000 on an 18th-century Hanukkah lamp in 2009 and naming Cambareri to her post in 2010. Schusterman learned of this push during her museum visit with Joyce Linde, an MFA donor and honorary trustee.
But it has not been easy for the museum to acquire valuable works.
In April, the Metropolitan Museum of Art outbid the MFA to purchase an 18th-century silver Torah crown at auction. The piece sold for $857,000.
Just bidding on the crown would have been impossible before 2009. That's when Jetskalina H. Phillips, a retired school teacher from Kansas, gave the MFA a gift of more than $2.5 million. At the time, the MFA knew nothing about Phillips. Since then, the museum has learned that she lived in Boston in the 1960s and converted to Judaism at Temple Israel just days before getting married to a local physician.
While no object in the Schusterman gift is as valuable as the crown, the range and scope of the works in the collection is important, said William Gross, a longtime collector of Judaica who has advised museums around the world.
"It gives a wonderful base," said Gross, speaking by phone from Tel Aviv. "There are a number of pieces fit to be displayed in any museum and [the collection] contains all the various sorts of Judaica, from Sabbath utensils to items used in synagogue rituals. It's very exciting."
The Schusterman gift also represents the latest step in a shift in Boston's cultural landscape. Historically, Jews were rarely in leadership posts in museums and arts organizations. But in 1991, Hank Foster became the MFA's first Jewish board chairman. In 2005, the late Ed Linde - Joyce Linde's husband - became the Boston Symphony Orchestra's first Jewish chairman.
Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis professor of American Jewish History who has studied the Jewish community in Boston and has been advising Cambareri, said he has been encouraged by the MFA's attempt to fill what he called "a big lacuna."
What's more, he appreciates that the MFA is making sure its Judaica material is not kept in its own space but integrated into the museum's collection. Timed to Hanukkah, which begins Wednesday, the MFA this month has put on display five works given by Schusterman in a European gallery that includes an art nouveau cabinet, 19th-century marriage ring, and an ornate, Italian armchair.
"You can see Jewish materials side by side with other materials from the same place and the same era, whatever it is," Sarna said.
The MFA's plan to display the Judaica with art in other areas impressed Schusterman.
In a phone interview, she described her new relationship with the MFA by using the Yiddish word "beshert," meant to define destiny.
That feeling started to emerge when she visited the museum with Joyce Linde and later met Cambareri and Emily Zilber, the museum's curator of contemporary decorative arts. She then heard about the Phillips gift that had helped establish Cambareri's curatorship and an acquisition fund. Before long, Schusterman had invited Cambareri to Tulsa, Okla., to examine the silver Sabbath candle holders, Hanukkah lamps, and assorted other items of Judaica - including spice towers, rugs from Israel, and Passover Seder plates - that would become part of the gift.
"The MFA is one of the world's great encyclopedic museums with more than a million visitors a year," said Schusterman. "To me, that was something very important. Hearing about how they were planning to use the [works], it just sort of clicked."
Gross, the Tel Aviv collector, said that he is encouraged by the MFA's interest. There are only three mainstream museums in North America with strong Judaica collections: The North Carolina Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Royal Ontario Museum.
The Schusterman gift immediately puts the MFA on the map in this area, he said.
Schusterman, 74, grew up in Oklahoma and married Charles Schusterman, who ran an oil and gas company that made him a billionaire by the time of his death in 2000. The couple launched a foundation in 1987 largely to fund Jewish causes, many of them in Oklahoma.
In 2007, the foundation pledged $15 million to Brandeis University to start The Schusterman Center for Israel Studies.
In making the MFA gift, Schusterman said she plans to remain involved with the museum and is excited to see her collection put to good use, both in the galleries and for school programs.
"I don't believe in giving something like this and just walking away from it," she said. "I'm a very hands-on kind of person."
Geoff Edgers can be reached at email@example.com.
- How Jewish Museums Are Expanding Into the Digital Universe
- Leadership teams at Jewish museums across the country have been grappling for some time with what it means to have virtual visitors. In the age of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr, Jewish museums are strategizing about how to share their collections with and engage people all over the world who might never walk through their buildings' front doors. The subject of how new media is impacting Jewish museums will be high on the agenda of the Council of American Jewish Museums' upcoming retreat in March, titled, "Connecting to Communities in Changing Times."…
Cultural Leaders Grapple With Paradigm Shift
Last year, the National Endowment for the Arts released some preliminary findings from its 2012 Survey of Public
Participation in the Arts. The survey found that more than twothirds of American adults accessed art via electronic media, including handheld mobile devices and the Internet. This information came as no surprise to the most widely
known Jewish institutions disseminating Jewish art and culture - namely, Jewish museums.
Leadership teams at Jewish museums across the country have been grappling for some time with what it means to
have virtual visitors. In the age of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr, Jewish museums are strategizing about how to
share their collections with and engage people all over the world who might never walk through their buildings' front
A further challenge is posed by the fact that inperson visitors do not expect to fully disconnect from their screens
while in the galleries. For many people, a 21st century museum visit is incomplete without an interactive experience
facilitated by QR codes or touch screen technology.
The subject of how new media is impacting Jewish museums will be high on the agenda of the Council of American
Jewish Museums' upcoming retreat in March, titled, "Connecting to Communities in Changing Times."
"The CAJM retreat is focusing on the many dimensions of change that are occurring in the communal and cultural
environments in which our institutions pursue their missions. Technological developments and shifting audience/7/14
expectations are an important component of change," CAJM executive director Joanne Kauvar told the Forward.
"We are going to be dealing with how to cope in our current reality, in which there are changing and fragmented modes
of cultural consumption," said Zachary Levine, one of the retreat's cochairs and assistant curator at Yeshiva University Museum in New York.
Levine said he expects a protracted discussion of critical issues facing museums in the next decade. "It's not a crisis, but it is a paradigm shift," he said of the fact that the digital space is becoming increasingly critical and dominant.
"Today, you need to make a strong case for visiting museums in person," said Allison Farber, former educator for new media at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage and producer at Potion, a design and technology firm specializing in interactive experiences.
"Cultural institutions need to think about ‘the salient experience,'" said Lori Starr, the new director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. "If people are not coming in your door a lot, then their one visit had better be great."
At the same time that Starr's museum is working to get people through its doors, it has embraced the notion of a remote audience. With this audience in mind, CJM is using cutting-edge technology to design new exhibitions and installations that reach in-person visitors and online visitors simultaneously, and in real time. As far as Starr is concerned, a museum's digital footprint is an extension of its brick and mortar presence. She said she's in favor of mounting online-only exhibitions.
Josh Perelman, chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia emphasized the importance for museums to be strategic in terms of what he calls "touch points" for different kinds of visitors.
The highest-level touch point would be the preservation of exhibitions and programs through the Internet, like NMAJH's "To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington and Religious Freedom" interactive letter activity and walking tour, This online offering has allowed the museum's 2012 exhibition centered on the 1790 letter George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island to continue after its physical closing.
While not all Jewish museums can engage with remote audiences through virtual exhibitions, they can all manage to reach them through other touch points, such as a well-designed and user-friendly website. A robust social media presence is another useful tool for outreach, helping to inform, educate, update, and provide space for discussion on Jewish culture and history.
"In between visits, you need to get into people's lives everyday," said Starr. "You can't be recessive. You have to be proactive all the time. If a person keeps hearing from you, then he will start listening."
Levine suggested that having a social media presence is particularly crucial for smaller institutions. "We have a distinctive presence through these media as a means of extending our mission of bringing the exploration of Jewish culture to everyone, as well as to get our name out there," Levine reports. "Online, we appear bigger than we actually are."
Museum professionals also said that social media has been helpful in sourcing artifacts for their museums' collections and exhibitions. "We reached out online and through social media for images to use in our "Hava Nagila" exhibit and we got some good responses, especially through Flickr," notes Alice Rubin, senior manager for digital media and special projects at MJH.
MJH has jumped on the digital bandwagon in several ways, including the use of iPod-based audio guides and the development of a successful New York walking tour app for an exhibition on Emma Lazarus.
However, Rubin, whose museum's core exhibition deals in large part with the Holocaust, warns, "Nothing is the same as being in a physical space in a museum."
She doesn't see a virtual exhibition as a likely model for MJH. "It's not relevant to our core," she said. "Context is so important in our museum, where most visits are mediated by educators and trained guides. Our focus is the 50,000 school kids who come through our doors every year... The NEA report is interesting, but we need to look at us," Rubin maintains.
Nevertheless, the question of how to take advantage of the digital space is one that all cultural institutions are grappling with. "A museum is a repository of a tremendous amount of content, and it is staffed by incredible educators and others," said Perelman. "We need to embrace a sense of visitorship that goes beyond a traditional conception of the term."
Renee Ghert-Zand is a contributing editor of the Forward.
- 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/
- 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.
- 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.