Metro Views: The most welcoming Jewish spaces in the US

Growing number of Jewish museums attract important segment of community.

sf jewish museum 224 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
sf jewish museum 224
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
Last month, when the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies abruptly closed an exhibition that some saw as anti-Israel, the embarrassed Chicago museum inadvertently performed a great communal service: It opened the door to a long-overdue discussion on the role of American Jewish museums. When the exhibition Imaginary Coordinates closed two months early, there were accusations of censorship and caving in to donors' sensitivities. The exhibition was the institute's contribution to a city-wide celebration of maps, globes and other cartographic creations. The Spertus entry included rare and antique maps of the Holy Land, as well as works from Israeli and Palestinian women artists. Because the exhibition closed without warning, many commentators, such as myself, never saw it. We heard the complaints about content, but had no way of judging the merits. Maps are inherently ideological in the current political environment, so that kind of criticism was to be expected. I, for one, do not see the geopolitical balance of the Mideast shifting because an American Midwestern museum exhibits its map collection. Others were offended by some of the videos, including one in which the Israeli artist Sigalit Landau, standing nude on a Tel Aviv beach, punctures her body twirling a barbed-wire hula hoop. One is tempted to say: Close your eyes, or go home. Some complaints were not about the Spertus exhibition, but about the use of the new museum space, in which the Judaica no longer held a very public place of pride. One Chicago rabbi bemoaned the move of the Judaica collection to an upper floor, with inadequate signs and neck-wrenching displays. "Deracinating Jewish religious objects by displaying them solely for their artistic merit is offensive to many Jews," wrote Rabbi Ira S. Youdovin in the weekly newspaper The Forward. "And to make matters worse, very few of the 1,500 items now on display relate to Israel or Zionism." With all due respect to Rabbi Youdovin, it seems reasonable to note that an entire industry rests on Judaica's artistic, not ritual, appeal. One man's klei kodesh is another's decorative artwork. Further, many museum-goers have no interest in Israel. As complaints go, however, his was the most interesting because it cuts to the heart of what people think Jewish museums should be. FROM SEVEN founding members in 1977, there are now some 80 institutions in the Council of American Jewish Museums. Some are multi-million-dollar art museums, history and heritage institutions and Holocaust centers, or smaller synagogue-based exhibitions of religious objects. They have various sources of funding, reflect different local interests, and rarely - if ever - cater solely to the Jewish community. Many, by virtue of their location, size and programs, are as much a part of a local cultural scene as any civic museum. The doomed Spertus exhibit was in a renovated space on tony Michigan Avenue that, after $55 million, housed the college, museum and library. Last month, San Francisco opened its $47 million Contemporary Jewish Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, in the tourist district. And Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation recently pledged $1 million toward the National Museum of American Jewish History's $150-million capital campaign for a site on Philadelphia's Independence Mall. EXPANSION is not limited to Jewish institutions. But the success of the Jewish museums' mega-projects indicates that they have excited communities and are filling an important gap. Although some may deride Jewish cultural and ethnic events as "Judaism lite," given what appears to be a declining interest in much of what we call customary Jewish life, we should celebrate the museums. Through exhibitions, educational programs and performances, the museums may be the most welcoming Jewish spaces in the US, providing undemanding access to art, scholarship, heritage and history. "Museums have open doors," said Gabriel Goldstein, an associate director at Yeshiva University Museum in New York. "We invite everyone to come in. That is one of our strengths. This is a part of Yeshiva University that anyone can walk into. There are no questions about personal background, no admission exams." None of the museums are unmindful of community sentiment, although no one acknowledged that any topic was off-limits. "I don't think there are sacred cows," Goldstein said. "The sacred cows are sensitivity and balance and an appropriate conversation throughout the Jewish community that all kinds of opinions can be voiced and are voiced successfully." DOWNTOWN, at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage, director David Marwell said: "We have principles in the choices of what we do. It does you no good to alienate and distract." But the museum does not shy away from programs that some would call controversial. In September, it will open an exhibition on Irène Némirovsky. The Russian-French author, a convert to Catholicism who died in Auschwitz, has been both embraced and reviled as her writings have been rediscovered and parsed decades after the Holocaust. The museum will offer what we cannot readily find elsewhere: a thoughtful exhibition and public program on Némirovsky's life and work. The absence of such programs would leave us dependent on Némirovsky's book reviewers, some of whom are far less thoughtful and more poorly informed than her readers. This applies to ritual objects as well. For the last 20 years, the San Francisco museum has had occasional exhibitions known as "invitationals," where up to 100 artists, from a variety of backgrounds, are invited to "reinterpret" a ritual object and its role in contemporary life. Several years ago, the object was a spice box. In addition to the artists' works, the exhibit Scents of Purpose: Artists Interpret the Spice Box featured areas in which visitors could learn the history of the spice box, as well as locations where they could listen to contemporary and historical renderings of Havdala prayers from around the world, including Morocco, Tunisia, Israel, France and Germany. The intent was to show how objects, rituals and values continue to have meaning, said director Connie Wolf. "If we had done a show on the history of spice boxes, no one would have come," she said. "It would not have a broad appeal; it would not engage audiences." One issue likely to disengage audiences is Israel. It is perceived as an essential topic for many museums. But, says David Shneer, co-author of New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora and the director of the Jewish studies program at the University of Colorado, "Israel remains the issue within the Jewish world most able to quickly alienate donors or cause controversy, and both of these propositions are risky to museums." WHILE WE may cringe at some programming, the museums can attract an important segment of the community that may not otherwise be reached. "Jewish cultural consumption" often forms a large aspect of Jewish identity of the young, unaffiliated and intermarried. It is an alternative to an "institutional world they see as bland, conformist, conservative and alien," according to a study by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman. The museums may be the only open Jewish space in the US where traditional, ethnic and disengaged Jews can meet with each other and with the larger community. Think of them as cultural sanctuaries. Applaud and pity the curators, who, as Shneer reminds us, have a responsibility to Jewish communities as well as a responsibility to the arts, and who must juggle politics, ideology and pragmatism. Sometimes it is impossible to keep all those balls in the air. It is a lesson Spertus learned; and the question now is what we will learn from Spertus.