American Jewish Life on View
Jeffrey Shandler, April 2000
The God of Israel is stingy.
He won't fill his museum with statues,
Paintings, altars, thrones,
Purple gowns, three-tiered crowns,
He does not wish to live in a palais.
The Jewish museum has a modest display.
Within the larger issue of putting American history and culture on public view, the case of displaying American Jewish life raises particular challenges that have telling implications for the broader topic at hand. American Jewry has a wide-ranging material culture, embracing works of "high" art by American Jewish painters and sculptors, ritual objects created by professional artisans, as well as a vast array of folk art, mass-produced ephemera, and works of popular media. American Judaica attracts a growing number of collectors, and the increased demand is reflected in prices currently asked in galleries, at auctions, and through online sales. The rise of popular interest in American Jewish material culture parallels institutional development.
Currently there are 56 organizations affiliated with the Council of American Jewish Museums, which was established in 1977. They include institutions with a local focus (such as the synagogue Judaica museums in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia) as well as museums with a range of specific agendas: regional Jewish history (Mississippi), the Jewish family (North Carolina), Jewish military history (Washington, D.C.), and Holocaust commemoration (California).
While American Jews engage in extensive discussions of identity in print, broadcast media, and other forums, the collecting and exhibiting of Jewish artifacts provides an especially valuable area for considering how identity can be materialized in the modern public sphere. The notion of a Jewish museum is in itself a product of the Jewish encounter with modernity.1 Interrogating the contents of Jewish museums raises more fundamental questions about notions of cultural provenance; this, in turn, can inform broader discussions of what issues define modern Jewish life. Thus, by asking of artifacts, "what makes them Jewish?" both curators and museumgoers address the larger question of what roles these objects play in realizing a Jewish sense of self for those who create, sell, buy, give, collect, use, or display them.
At the same time that material culture provides rich opportunities for understanding American Jewry, it also raises distinctive problems. Material culture is often regarded as being, at best, peripheral to Jewish culture, which is widely thought of as centered around written texts, oral traditions, as well as practices and concepts for which the material is extrinsic, if not (in the case of the conceptualization of God as invisible and ineffable) untenable. Thus, the avant-garde American Yiddish poet A. Leyeles (Aaron Glanz) wrote in the above-cited poem that the Jewish museum, unlike those of other cultures, can only have "a modest display."2
In addition, American Jewish culture has a long history of struggling for recognition as legitimate, distinctive, and authentic vis-à-vis both other Jewish cultures and other American cultures. Thus, the Jewish literary scholar Robert Alter wrote that the "question" of an American Jewish culture "is nearly imponderable because each of its component terms is so clearly problematic." Indeed, the abundance of American Jewry's material culture sometimes counts as a negative, often compared disparagingly with its spiritual culture. Alter is not alone in dismissing the former as mere "bagels and lox."3
Such contentions notwithstanding, American Jewish culture is currently rich with examples of public displays of its material culture as self-reflexive proving grounds. This essay considers how the issues of inventory, display, and encounter are engaged by three recent examples of American Jewish life on public view: first, the photographs of American Jewish material culture in Frederic Brenner's 1996 album Jews/America/a Representation; second, the 1999 mock exhibition, The Jew of New York, inspired by the recent graphic novel of the same name by Ben Katchor; and finally, two popular media installations in the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, which opened in 1997.
In addition to their value as signposts of contemporary American Jewish culture, all three examples demonstrate the challenging status of the artifact as something that gains new meaning by dint of its selection and presentation—a meaning that is further transformed, sometimes subverted, when it is encountered by viewers. Moreover, these examples evince a self-consciousness about the nature of display itself, treating it variously as an opportunity for playfulness, irony, or celebration of the self.
When it appeared in 1996, Brenner's oversized album Jews/America/a Representation created something of a sensation, primarily for its 28 large-format portraits of unconventional groups of American Jews (for example, Groucho Marx impersonators, survivors of breast cancer, lesbian daughters of Jewish Holocaust survivors) in carefully staged, highly theatrical compositions. Receiving less attention was the book's final section—a series of 731 black-and-white photographs of Jewish material culture, each printed in a one-inch square, under the title "Inventory: June 1993–September 1995 (arranged alphabetically)." Filling 21 pages of the album, the images are identified only by numbers, which correspond to a list of captions at the back of the book.
Unlike Brenner's elaborate group photographs, or his portraits of 39 American Jewish "icons" (such as Milton Friedman, Philip Roth, and Barbara Streisand, each posed behind a baroque picture frame), the images in the "inventory" are small in scale, casual, even austere in their aesthetic. They call to mind photographs in a museum's reference file, which are generally understood as indexes of artifacts rather than as objects of interest in themselves. The formal simplicity of the "inventory" photographs contrasts with their extensive range: street signs, synagogue facades, ritual objects, political buttons, advertisements, knickknacks, food, T-shirts, book jackets, newspaper clippings, and so on. Their abundance and diversity, as well as their ordinariness, suggests that all of America might be seen as a museum brimming with Jewish artifacts.
The plenitude of these images, with nothing other than numbers attached to them, poses an interpretive challenge to the viewer: how are these photos meant to be read? What is the rationale for their order? The running list of alphabetically arranged captions provides an answer, but it is a subversive one. Because the captions are wide-ranging and sometimes playful, their first key words create surprising juxtapositions. For example:
477 Owned by Satmar Jews; 478 Pacific Synagogue, Venice, CA; 479 Palmer, Matanushka Borough, AK; 480 Parachute Jump and Cyclone, Coney Island; 481 Park anywhere, New York Times, Saturday, June 3, 1995; 482 Park Avenue Synagogue; 483 Part 3
The connections between images and titles are often far from straightforward, playing with the notion of the caption as the "identification" of an image: 477 indexes not, as one might expect from the caption, a synagogue, but 47th St. Photo, a camera store in midtown Manhattan. 483 refers to a videocassette of Oh God! You Devil, the third in a series of comedies starring George Burns. While the inclusion of some images raise questions about provenance—what is "Jewish" about Coney Island?—the movement back and forth between captions and images provides a telling lesson in the nature of collecting and inventorying material culture. Just as unexpected items challenge the observer's assumptions as to what might lie within the parameters of American Jewish material culture, the alphabetical order proves to be an arbitrary shuffling of images within this master category, subverting expected taxonomic categories (such as regional, generic, and chronological). This unusual arrangement encourages the viewer to engage in the acts of collecting and indexing artifacts, especially to grapple with the problems that these activities pose. Brenner's inventory calls attention not only to the plenitude of material, something especially striking, no doubt, to a Jewish observer from abroad (Brenner is from France), but also to the challenges and delights entailed in the task of its assembly.
Cartoonist Ben Katchor's The Jew of New York uses the contemporary genre of the graphic novel to offer a complicated journey through a fictional, mid-19th-century New York, populated by an odd assortment of Jews (including a button merchant, stage designer, and fur trapper). Katchor displayed his penchant for fabricating imaginary social and architectural landscapes in "an exhibition of drawings and other spurious artifacts" relating to The Jew of New York, that was held at New York University's Bronfman Center for Jewish Life and the Tyler School of Art in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, in early 1999. Promotion of the installation parodies the hyperbolic advertisements for mid-19th-century exhibitions of "curiosities" (such as P. T. Barnum's American Museum)—"Examine at Your Leisure a Large Assemblage of Drawings and Watercolors Artistically Interspersed with Rare Treasures from a Private Collection of Curios Pertaining to Jewish Life in New York City, Including A PICKLED HERRING IN CAPTIVITY! A CLOD OF EARTH FROM THE GARDEN OF EDEN! $5,000 CASTOREUM CALF!"4
The installation, created by Katchor and associate curator Scott Rodolitz, plays with the protocols of museum display. The label for the "Clod of Earth from the Garden of Eden" endows an undistinguished piece of sod in a glass laboratory dish with the imprimatur of authenticity, thanks to the conventions of curatorial rhetoric of provenance: "N.W. Corner of Mesopotamia. Hiram's Museum Expedition, 1925. Collection Zalman Abramovich." Small sculptures made of castoreum (an amber-colored substance mentioned in Katchor's graphic novel, where it is used as an aphrodisiac) are displayed in a vitrine that also contains a refrigerator thermometer, simulating (and mocking) professional museum devices for monitoring the temperature and humidity of rare and mutable objects. And in place of the item "Cornerstone from Ararat, A City of Refuge for the Jews," appears a registrar's label and a notice, "Sorry, this object has been temporarily removed." Most elaborate among the items on view is the "Demonstration of the principles of soda water production according to Joseph Priestly," a large model reminiscent of science fair displays, with a bubbling tube hooked up to an aquarium filled (supposedly) with chalk and sulfuric acid. A sign warns the museumgoer, "Danger! Nonpotable soda water."
Like the exhibitions in David Wilson's Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, this installation exploits and lampoons the authority invested in the aesthetics of museum exhibition, as it plays with "the tension between what is real and imaginary."5 Katchor and his collaborator exploit this postmodernist sensibility to materialize an extravagantly fictional New York of yore—a place where Native Americans speak Hebrew and an elaborate underground system delivers seltzer to home faucets. Just as the novel both fabricates and mocks a vision of a richly idiomatic American Jewish past, in which Jewishness is imbricated into New York's history, culture, and architecture, the exhibition toys with the notion of capturing something as ineluctable as Jewish history in objects on display.
Works of media play strategic roles, both as artifacts and as strategies for display, in New York City's recently opened Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. Upon entering the building, an elaborate, multiscreen media program offers visitors an eight-minute prologue to the museum's main exhibition, an overview of Jewish experience from the late 19th century to the present, centering around the Holocaust. Several dozen television monitors of various sizes appear throughout the three-story display of artifacts, photographs, and text panels. Screens the size of small, portable television sets display vintage footage documenting episodes of the Nazi era (such as a public book burning in Germany, or a mass execution of East European Jews), while somewhat larger monitors offer the testimony of Holocaust survivors about their lives before, during, and after World War II.6
Among the most popular installations in the museum, according to my observations on several visits, are two larger media displays, located on the first and third floors, which celebrate the contribution of Jews to Western culture before and after World War II. In both installations, museumgoers watch a rapid montage of still and moving images of dozens of writers, composers, painters, performers, filmmakers, and others, which testifies to the extensive presence of Jewish culture "on the world stage." These displays take the form of miniature theaters—large screens present images to viewers who sit before them on benches (elsewhere in the museum, visitors usually must stand while watching media displays). Rather than providing an opportunity to savor the achievements of any of these artists, the fast-paced presentations (and the use of a multiple-screen display in the third-floor installation) impress viewers with the sheer wealth and variety of talent. These presentations shift attention from the artists' work to their identity as Jews—irrespective of what Jewishness may have meant to each artist's sense of self or to his or her art; rather, Jewish identity becomes an end in itself. This leaves the museumgoer to sit before the screens and occasionally say, "I didn't know so-and-so was Jewish"—a comment I have overheard being made on each of my trips to the museum. (In this regard, the installations echo the museum's introductory media program, in which unnamed individuals of all variety repeatedly articulate their pride in being Jews.)
Ultimately, the nature of the encounter proves to be more instructive than the images displayed in these two installations. One could examine a similar roster of Jewish luminaries by, say, thumbing through a volume of "Famous Jews in the Arts." But by virtue of their construction and situation, these two media installations also portray—albeit implicitly and, it seems, unintentionally—a dramatic transformation of Jewish culture in the 20th century. This constitutes a signal shift from the traditions of devotional scholarship and ritual, represented on the museum's first floor with the display of holy books and ceremonial objects, to a modernist existence centered around mass media and other forms of public culture—including museums themselves. Indeed, going to a museum and contemplating Jewish heritage and achievement, centered around the act of identifying who is a Jew (thereby publicly simulating an activity that takes place regularly in front of the television set in many an American Jewish home) can be seen as a new, self-reflexive cultural practice. Indeed, for many American Jews, the practice of encountering their heritage on public view is replacing the traditional way of life evoked by the almsboxes, torah ornaments, and Sabbath candlesticks locked in the vitrines of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Here, and in a growing number of similar venues, a culture of routine, ritual practice is transformed into one of public contemplation and celebration, with the stuff of material culture removed from its original instrumental role and transformed into the objects of display.
—Jeffrey Shandler, who teaches at New York University, has curated several exhibitions on the Jewish history and culture. His most recent publication is While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
1. See the chapter "Exhibiting Jews" in Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture: Tourism, Museum, and Heritage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 79–128; Grace Cohen Grossman with Richard Eighme Ahlborn, Judaica at the Smithsonian: Cultural Politics as Cultural Model (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999).
2. Benjamin and Barbara Harshav, eds., American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 76. The Yiddish original was first published in A. Leyeles, A vid afn yam (New York: CYCO, 1947).
3. Robert Alter, "The Jew Who Didn't Get Away: On the Possibility of an American Jewish Culture," Judaism 31 (summer 1982), 274.
4. The Jew of New York exhibition brochure (New York, 1999), unpaginated. The exhibition was held at New York University's Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, January 14–February 28, 1999.
5. Lawrence Weschler, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder (New York: Pantheon, 1995), 74.
6. For further discussion of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, see my review essay, "Heritage and Holocaust on Display," The Public Historian 22:1 (winter 1999), 73–86.