Jewish Museums: Are They Good for the Jews?

What are Jewish museums for? Are they just a holding place for relics of the past? An aide memoire for visitors of a vibrant, complex, strange people that used to dwell amongst them?

by Sally Berkovic

I have schlepped my children to museums across London in the ambitious hope of helping them to ‘understand other cultures’ and to ‘appreciate other people and their customs’ because, attending Jewish schools and living in the heart of London’s Golders Green shtetl, there was very little chance they were going to actually meet people of other cultures or witness first hand, the customs of others in their actual real homes. I have also dragged them to family events at the Jewish Museum in London to create Rosh Hashana cards, sample Hamantaschen just before Purim or build miniature Sukkot out of ice-cream sticks. All this to supplement their Jewish education and reinforce their identity, for that is how I understood the purpose of a Jewish museum – a place, most definitely created by the Jews, for the Jews and about the Jews. A safe Jewish space.

How misguided I was. In many European Jewish cities, the requisite Jewish museum is a major attraction for the non-Jewish public (unlike Ian Shulman’s assertion that ‘a Jewish museum rarely becomes a major attraction for non-Jewish public’ in his February eJP piece about The Jewish Memory and Holocaust in Ukraine Museum in Dnipropetrovsk). Footfall figures across European Jewish museums including those in Amsterdam, Paris, Budapest, Berlin (more of which below) Rome, Athens, Vienna and Prague suggest that the overwhelming majority of visitors are not Jewish, and further, these museums have extensive educational programmes for non-Jewish school children. Jewish visitors, alas, tend to be tourists.

So what are Jewish museums for? Are they just a holding place for relics of the past? An aide memoire for visitors of a vibrant, complex, strange people that used to dwell amongst them? Recently, I have been thinking extensively about the role of Jewish museums in Europe – how, for example, is a Jewish museum embedded within its own local Jewish community different to a Jewish museum that exists in a vacuum, devoid of a community, deracinated of a Jewish presence.

News of the controversial new exhibit at the Berlin Jewish Museum, “The Whole Truth – What You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Jews” made me think some more. According to its website, the exhibit ‘confronts various questions about Judaism and being Jewish: the FAQs, the difficult questions, the funny questions, the clever questions, and the questions that really have no answer. Some of them make the questioner uneasy, some are politically incorrect, while others betray something about the person who asks them. How does someone become a Jew? What am I, if my mother is Christian and my father is Jewish? What is the Jewish take on Jesus and Mohammed? Are the Jews a Chosen People?”

In one of the rooms of the exhibition, there is a ‘real live Jew’ waiting to answer questions and interact with visitors.

Apparently, one of the most asked questions is ‘Are there still Jews in  Germany,” clearly, the assumption being that there are no more left. And the truth is, until 25 years ago, there were only a handful of Jews scattered throughout the country and it would not have been an unreasonable question. But with the influx of 200,000 Jews from the Former Soviet Union since 1989, the question belies a total ignorance of their existence and of the challenges faced by this immigrant minority.

Thanks to many including the Joint Distribution Committee, the Lauder Foundation, Chabad and the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland (“Central Council of Jews in Germany”) there are Jewish schools in Germany, communal rabbis are in place throughout the country supporting small scattered communities, kosher food is available, and all of this is complemented by a vibrant ex-pat Israeli music and art scene in Berlin. While estimates now suggest that there are now about 100-120,000 Jews in Germany and there are many challenges facing German Jewry which are beyond this article, the question remains, ‘What do the Germans really know about contemporary Jewish life in their own country?’ And in a twist, do the Russian-speaking Jews from the FSU who continue to speak to their young children in Russian, actually identify with the history, customs and traditions of German Jewry represented in the Museum? Can a Museum be a bridge between these two realities?

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 has suggested 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 mandated to support Jewish culture is caught in that awkward space between past and future, for it must function in the present. The Board of our Foundation, which takes pride in promoting the cultural heritage of European Jewry, is motivated by three factors in its support for Jewish museums. 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 and expert knowledge to manage the collections. Secondly, Jewish museums, especially those in multi-cultural Europe, have an important socio-political role to play in exploring the tensions between universalism and particularism – 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 the Chief Executive of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe.