Friday, February 1, 2008

Are these the new Jewish temples?

I mean, the Jewish Museum is the story of America. Immigrants coming in, doing well, contributing to the chimerical nature of culture in San Francisco. And what is interesting is that the [client] understood that so many people all over America have intermarried. They don’t identify with the synagogue any longer, nor do they identify with Zionists. So this is a new venue, it has many resonances. And it gives everybody a chance to engage in exhibitions.

From an interesting interview with architect Daniel Libeskind at

He's the architect responsible for the Berlin Jewish Museum, the extension of the Royal Ontario Museum and the design for the 1776 feet high World Trade Centre Tower (called the Freedom Tower.) His startling designs feature jagged edges, the play of light and incongruous juxtapositions of shapes, materials and in some cases, eras, cultures and traditions, like the way this new San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum abuts against St. Patrick's Catholic Church. Not sure I agree with his statement that American Jews don't identify with the synagogue anymore or with (as) Zionists. But the creation of Jewish museums does raise so many interesting questions with respect to identity, the position of a distinct community within a society, and the purpose of museums in general. I've always been slightly uncomfortable with the notion of Jewish museums. It suggests a sort of pickled, jarred, moribund existence. Something inactive, historical, to be exhibited, looked-at and pondered over. And why are there Jewish museums but not Roman Catholic museums? The creation of Jewish museums may have something to do with the fact that Jews have no sense of history, by which I mean, that culturally and theologically-speaking we have never distinguished between our historical existence and our contemporary one. They co-exist. For us, the past is everpresent and alive within the moment. It's implied in the biblical commandment "zakhor" (remember.) So can it be that the idea of a Jewish museum suggests the community's literal and figurative desire to concretize, and reposition its identity as something transforming toward the secular and historical (temporal as opposed to eternal)? And further, does this trend suggest a sort of spiritual atrophy?


James G. Leventhal said...

"And why are there Jewish museums but not Roman Catholic museums?"

As an initial point of departure in this line of inquiry is to note that many of the world's great museums are distinguished by their holdings, especially their paintings, tapestries and reliquaries that come from the Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions -- think of all the Madonna and Child paintings that have been removed from churches for display in museums. Does displaying these works in museums "secularized" them? Are Jewish museums created to find meaning? Are they more about exploring meaning in museums than replacing temples?

B. Glen Rotchin said...

I've been re-thinking that line over and over ever since I posted it. Something bothersome about it. And yes, I thought about the museum holdings of religious objects and icons. Does it secularize them? Well, in a word, yes. It recontextualizes them. Turns them from functional ritual objects into objet d'art to be observed for their purely artistic qualities, to be studies and contemplated as such (as opposed to objects meant to inspire the expereince of the Divine.) We go to synagogues/churches/mosques to explore what it means to be human via an encounter (and deepen our connection) with G-d. We go to museums to explore what it means to be human via an encounter (and deepen our connection) with civilization/humanity.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment.