Jewish Museums as Catalysts for Community

Immigration Gallery. Photo by G. Widmans, courtesy Visit Philadelphia.

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 18 – Jewish Peoplehood and Jewish Museumspublished by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education in collaboration with the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture. An introduction to this volume can be found here.]

By Ivy Barsky

“They took all the trees/
And put them in a tree museum/ Then they charged the people/
A dollar and a half just to see ’em”[1]

The quote from singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell points to the perception that museums are where things go to die. Everyone, from the 20th-century artist Marcel Duchamp to the esteemed rabbi and scholar of blessed memory Arthur Herzberg, has asserted this claim. Jewish museums are subject to double jeopardy. One might conclude that if museums are where things go to die, then Jewish museums are where Jewish things go to die. Hence, we are tolling the death knell for Judaism or Jewishness.

The museum field has not done a terribly good job of countering the stereotype. Like many stereotypes, it contains a shred of truth. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, museums were more likely to be storehouses to preserve history than hotbeds of new thinking. However, the dissemination of information has long been an essential function of museums, and has evolved into a public mandate resulting in robust and innovative education programming.

Ed Rothstein (former art critic for The New York Times, more recently of The Wall Street Journal) wrote: “… 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 the world of belief left behind. …”[2]

Obviously, those of us who toil in the field of Jewish museum work must take issue with this. None of us would do this work if we thought those were the ends. In fact, I would argue, Jewish museums are doing quite the opposite. We’re just not making the case strongly enough. We’re also allowing Jewishness to be defined narrowly by its ritual attributes rather than by all the many things that really make, and keep, Jews Jewish.

Jewish museums may not be the answer to Jewish hand wringing, borne by the 2013 Pew study,[3] which posited that fewer Jews are affiliating Jewishly in traditional ways. Nor are we alike. But we are, I would argue, an essential part of the ecology of Jewish history and identity. Most of all, we are an important part of a vibrant Jewish future.

In this data-driven time, our anecdotal evidence is not sufficient. But it is powerful. In the National Museum of American Jewish History’s collection is a beautiful menorah, made by Manfred Anson. (There is a version in the Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York, and at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.) Anson, himself a former refugee, created the menorah for the 1986 centenary of the Statue of Liberty. The NMAJH was honored to be asked to bring our menorah to the White House in 2013 for the Hanukkah celebration.

There, it was lit by a Jewish family whose husband and father was deployed in Afghanistan. President Obama lifted one of the children to light the candles and those gathered recited the prayer and sang Ma’oz Tzur. If that isn’t Jewish life, I don’t know what is.

Jewish museums and historic sites provide ways to think about the present (and future) with knowledge of our past.

Many of my colleagues in American Jewish museums are using their standing in the community and their role as the custodians of history to act on current events. For example, the Jewish Museum of Maryland helped to stem racial tension in Baltimore in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death, an African American youth shot and killed by Baltimore police, and a landmark case in contemporary race relations in the United States.

At the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, a long time education program called the Living Museum Project has produced the Interfaith Museum project, in which Muslim students and Jewish day school students partner over the course of a school year to investigate ritual (and other) objects from their homes and to discuss their own traditions. They find differences, of course, but they also uncover profound similarities and understand each other as individuals. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the program occurs when the Muslim and Jewish families and teachers of the 5th and 6th graders gather at the museum in lower Manhattan to view the exhibition that the kids have curated and organized and share a meal together.

In this highly charged, contentious time in America, where better to address the hot topic of immigration than at the Tenement Museum, Eldridge Street Synagogue, or the National Museum of American Jewish History?

I gave a tour of NMAJH to an interesting family that taught me a lot about the muscle of the museum. The patriarch, his three children, their spouses, and some grandchildren arrived. They had grown up squarely Reform. One of the grown kids married a similarly Reform partner, another married a Catholic man and they were raising their children “both.” The third had become Orthodox with children attending yeshivot, their heads covered. Where else could this family have come together to comfortably explore their shared heritage but a Jewish museum?

Recently, we had a small family group that bid for a tour of the museum at their synagogue auction. The group included the parents of one partner of a young lesbian couple. The wife-to-be was not Jewish. For those smart parents, the museum provided an unthreatening space for that family to discuss Jewishness, tradition, and innovation, and to casually explore family history and practice. Incidentally, it also provided a place to learn about the role of queer Jews in the larger struggle for LGBT rights in this country and to find an appropriate, same sex, interfaith ketubbah (Jewish marriage contract) Maybe this is not so incidental, but rather a sign of the malleability of “Jewishness” and Jewish traditions to accommodate societal change.

The Jewish philanthropic field is mixed in its reviews of museums and whether to support them. We will always have funders who want to support a narrow stream of activity and stay in their lane with discipline and precision. Some explicitly state in their guidelines that they won’t support museums or entertain proposals from them. I suspect those funders don’t really understand what we do and our potential impact. The consequence of their narrow focus means that they lose the opportunity to engage those who have a broader vision of Jewish identity, vitality, community, and religious meaning.

Jewish funders and Jewish museums alike should invest more in what messages our non-Jewish audiences cull from us. Jewish funders who have a singular goal of “Jewish continuity” often don’t factor in that Jewish continuity in America includes our hyphenated identity. We need to meet folks on both sides of their hyphen and appeal to their whole selves. For example, the exhibition “Bill Graham and the Rock ‘n Roll Revolution” (organized by the Skirball, and opened at NMAJH in September 2016) is most appealing to rock ‘n roll fans, but attracts Jews and non-Jews who learn the astounding story of how a Holocaust orphan, who began his American life in foster care in the Bronx at age 10, grew up to stage manage the rock revolution. Or our recent induction of Julius Rosenwald into our Only in America Hall of Fame. We have been sharing the little known story of this first generation Jewish American whose incredible innovation and entrepreneurship as president of Sears and Roebuck made him a very wealthy man in the early 20th century. He used his fortune to engage in his civic community (for example, helping to build what is now the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago), his Jewish community (by helping to save Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms), and the African-American community in the rural south, for which he helped build more than 5,000 schools for African-American children who did not have access to quality education because of segregation. Promoting the story of Julius Rosenwald helps us instill pride in being Jewish and American, while inspiring our audiences to dream, dare, and do more to transform the world in which we live, and address injustice where they see it.

NMAJH just celebrated our fourth annual Freedom Seder. This is an intentionally interfaith, interethnic visitor experience of 300 or so dining together, with another several hundred participating by livestream video. Everyone in attendance participates in the program through music and storytelling that encourages real dialogue about the contemporary meanings and struggles around notions of freedom. It ends with a stirring version of Od yavo shalom aleinu.[4]

Now, Ed Rothstein and, to be fair, many others, might assert that this is pandering – privileging the American narrative over the Jewish narrative. But Jewish museums can, and should, be catalysts for community writ large. It is interesting that as an international community we think most about the importance of museums and historic sites during conflict and war, and the importance – symbolic and otherwise – of their preservation or destruction. After the Russian Revolution, the Russians proclaimed that all historic monuments were to be protected. Conversely, we witnessed the recent tragic destruction of religious and historic sites in Iraq and Syria. The good guys and the bad guys understand that the evidence of history is central to the spirit, pride, and continuity of people.

We need museums, and Jewish communal support for Jewish museums, because we need to experience collective history to see how the past resurfaces in the present in order to remain civilized in the future. “Societies build these institutions because they authenticate the social contract. They are collective evidence that we were here,”[5] and continue to be.

[1] Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi,” 1970
[2] Edward Rothstein, “The Problem with Jewish Museums,” Mosaic Magazine, February 1, 2016.
[3] Pew Research Center, “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” 2013.
[4] An Israeli folksong about peace, often used referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and includes “salaam,” the Arabic word for peace as well as “shalom.”
[5] Elaine Heumann Gurian, “The Many Meanings of Objects in Museums,” Daedalus Vol. 128, No. 3 (summer 1999).

Ivy Barsky has been the CEO and Gwen Goodman Director of the National Museum of American Jewish History, in Philadelphia, since June 2012. Previously she served as deputy director of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.