Wading Through Widowhood: A museum by moonlight

I thought of Martin at the gala, of sadness, and how it just never seems to end in Jerusalem.

Chef Yisrael Aharoni and costume designer Yuval Caspin at the Israeli friends of the Israel Museum gala event (photo credit: PETER LENY/ISRAEL MUSEUM)
Chef Yisrael Aharoni and costume designer Yuval Caspin at the Israeli friends of the Israel Museum gala event
Sometimes, it seems just impossible to summon up the strength to deal with still more insanity in Israel, as violence batters at our peace yet again.
We wonder, as we visit family living in peaceful places, if we are actually suckers – sticking it out in a country where our kids have to fight for our right to live at all. And then we think again, remembering and realizing that if we weren’t here, Jews might not be living so securely anywhere at all.
Take Vienna, for example; Jews have not had an easy ride there. In 1420 they comprised 5 percent of the city, until Duke Albrecht V confiscated their property, destroyed their shul and kicked them out. Some decades later they were allowed to return, chucked out again in 1669, then asked to come back when Vienna’s economy crumbled. Periods of calm were punctured by periods of anti-Semitism until 1841, when a Jewish renaissance began – a golden period for Austrian Jews, who flourished until the beginning of World War II.
Sigmund Freud was Austrian, as were Martin Buber and Theodor Herzl, as well as Max Nordau, Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka. Three out of four Austrian Nobel Prize winners in medicine were Jews, and more than half of its doctors, dentists and lawyers were Jewish, too.
In Vienna’s only synagogue to have escaped the ravages of World War II, there is a plaque for the Jews who died fighting for Austria in World War I. Next to it is a huge stone book, its granite leaves engraved with the 65,000 names of Austrian Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
And next to that is another plaque, with the almost 200 names of those who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and came to Israel, where they died fighting in the War of Independence.
On a frosty Friday night exactly three years ago, I went to that sad, proud synagogue with Martin, who was already so ill. We had come to Austria for a break from chemo and hospitals and dread, and Martin did what he did so well: he somehow snatched us another festive, fabulous holiday. We went to the opera and the opulent cafes; he even introduced me to art galleries he especially loved.
In the Secession Building, we marveled at Klimt’s glittering Beethoven Frieze shimming on high; but there was something edgy about the accompanying explanatory plaque. Within the history of the work and its original Jewish ownership, there was no mention of how Eric Lederer fled the Nazis, nor the conditions of his postwar sale of the artwork to the museum.
Martin was outraged. He was really not well by that stage – thin, clinging on with difficulty to his legendary energy – but he nonetheless interrogated the attendant on duty, who had no answers.
Mart then questioned someone in the bookstore, who shook her head and knew no more. “It’s a scandal,” said my husband, “I’m going to look into it when we get home.”
Time wasn’t on his side, and life, or more accurately death, got in the way. I thought of this incident recently when I attended the gala event for the Israeli Friends of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Oh, Jerusalem. As the museum prepared to party, Israel’s capital was once again troubled with riots and the hurling of rocks, a prelude to the even worse disasters that lay ahead. From the relatively safe space of the Sharon area, I wondered whether I should trek there at all after a long day at work; just negotiating the roadwork on Route 1 seemed like a huge challenge.
But entering Jerusalem always somehow does it for me, and the museum by moonlight is a magical place. The building seemed to twinkle as its patrons tucked into food too scrumptious to describe – think Ottolenghi with a kosher twist. Upbeat Mayumana dancers rocked guests into a gently rollicking groove, the soulful Black Hebrews from Dimona glimmering in satin of blue and white, sang of peace and love and being there when the saints come marching in. It was the stuff of “Hatikva” moments.
The evening, which raised NIS 1.7 million (part of which provides free guided tours for soldiers), showcased 10 Israeli celebs sharing their thoughts on particular pieces in the collection.
Lea Rotstein, director of the museum’s Israeli Friends, says the annual event is only one of the treats laid on for Friends throughout the year. “We work hard to bring interesting speakers who can entertain and educate,” she explains. This year, celebrity chef Yisrael Aharoni and journalist Rina Matzliach were among the presenters.
Top costume designer Yuval Caspin situated his talk in a gallery displaying a sumptuous collection of clothes worn in recent centuries by Jews worldwide.
In his overview of the development of Israeli design, Caspin – draped in a tallit-like shawl – spiced up his stories with only-in-Israel anecdotes of famous couturiers offering chicken soup when, as a young soldier in uniform, he visited their shows. Then, in swept a troop of models; gorgeous girls in gorgeous gowns inspired by Oriental winds and desert sands … another “Hatikva” moment.
James Snyder, the acclaimed and erudite museum director, walked us through a new Klimt acquisition, the only surviving one of four paintings originally commissioned for Vienna’s Medical University: its history, the scandalous way it hints at how death defies all doctors, the Jewish angle, the trademark gilt. You see why I thought of Martin.
But here’s the thing: I thought of Martin, and of sadness, and how it just never seems to end in Jerusalem. From the Crusades to cars plowing into bus stops, the craziness goes on and on and on. But yet, in the serenity of its glowing stone buildings, you have to marvel at the concomitant creativity, the festivity, the kef (fun).
The Beethoven Frieze we loved in Vienna illustrates the human desire for happiness in a suffering and tempestuous world. In the Israel Museum, perched on a hill just below where the Israeli flag flutters over the Knesset, this happiness seemed a touch more attainable.
Here’s to the day when Jerusalem will glow only with art, music, good food and love, when anger and pain are gone and forgotten. Who knows? Maybe even the saints will come marching in.
Shabbat shalom.
The writer lectures at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and Beit Berl; peledpam@gmail.com