The handwritten siddur (prayer book) of the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism, 1698-1760) with his students’ names in the margins to help him remember them in his prayers. The siddur is in the collection of Agudas Chabad Library, in Brooklyn. The book is open to the Amidah or Shemone Esreh prayer. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
So, apparently, Russia is not lending any artworks to American museums right now. Why? Because they are afraid that anything they send over here might be held for ransom until Russia turns over the 15,000 or so books & other documents they hold formerly belonging to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, aka the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late leader of Chabad, a very prominent Brooklyn-based ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement. A recent article in the magazine Tablet explains out the situation in some nice detail – I myself knew extremely little about it, and am glad for the information. But I would wager that the vast majority of curators & other museum professionals in the US know next to nothing about this collection, or about the controversy. It may be a huge big deal within Chabad circles, and who knows just how prominent it is within the Russian government, or the Russian museum world, but, for museums all across the United States to be denied loans of Matisses and Monets, across the board, because of a dispute between the Russian government and a Jewish sect over a collection of books (and these 15,000 volumes are not even the entirety of the Rebbe’s collection; Chabad has another 250,000 volumes in Brooklyn), seems, well, silly.
But, then, that’s just how the museum world works sometimes. Reality can be stranger than fiction, and as in any set of politics, in the museum world or in any other field, all sorts of things can get twisted up together that really shouldn’t be connected…
The collection was obtained by the Russians when they took it from the Nazis who had taken it from where the Rebbe stored it in Warsaw after successfully escaping from Soviet Russia (in order to protect both himself and the collection). After that, nothing was heard or known about the collection for many years, until around the time of Gorbachev, and then the fall of the Soviet Union, information began to come out. But still the Russian government would not let go of the objects. They allowed Chabad rabbis to come to Moscow, believing they were going to be allowed to at least see the collection, but in the end denied the rabbis even that, allowing them to see only a catalog of the collection. Then there was some kind of legal decision, in which Chabad won the decision and the Russians were obliged to, or agreed to, return the collection. But, that too didn’t end up happening.
Now, Russian officials are asserting that The Schneersohn collection is a “national treasure of the Russian people.” As representatives of Chabad have appropriately responded, “There is no justification for Russia’s retention of Jewish texts that were stolen by the Nazis in Poland and then looted by the Red Army during the Holocaust.” And that’s the least of the justifications, it would seem, for why Russia’s claims are, well, on less than solid ground. This is coming from a country that for nearly the entire 20th century suppressed all religion; a country where anti-Jewish pogroms were so bad in the pre-Soviet era that these pogroms are among the most famous, most prominently known & cited causes of Russian Jewish emigration to the United States. A country where anti-Jewish policies were so severe, the State of Israel worked to “rescue” over 160,000 Jews from Soviet Russia in the 1960s-70s alone. So how could such a thing be a “National Treasure” of such a state?
The new Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. Opened 2012, according to Wikipedia it may be the largest Jewish museum in the world.
Of course, towards the middle of the article, we see a somewhat more sympathetic and nuanced side. Rabbi Gorin, a spokesperson for Chabad in Russia (Chabad is active in Russia? I’m surprised.) claims that the Russian government, which is now moving the collection to a new Museum of Jewish Tolerance, has Hebraists on staff who are working to more properly & accurately catalog the collection, and who intend to digitize the entire thing and make it all accessible to the public. Wow. Sounds nice. So I guess the books aren’t locked away in some basement, hated and forgotten about. And, he explains, all the talk about the books being a “national treasure” is just posturing, and what it’s really about is that, as part of a sort of umbrella stance/attitude, the removal or return of anything from any of the national libraries is essentially out of the question. The British Museum has spoken similarly as to the inability of the Elgin Marbles, or objects of potential Nazi provenance, being removed from their collection and given over to previous or allegedly “rightful” owners. Further, Gorin says “that the Schneersohn library is typical of great eastern European rabbis’ personal collections,” and that furthermore, since so many such libraries were destroyed, that makes this one all the more valuable as a source for research, and as something to proudly hold – and keep – in one’s collection. This is an argument I’ve seen before in numerous other cases, and with which, I must say, I can sympathize. There are countless cases of museums in the US, UK, and elsewhere that don’t want to give up a given object or collection because it is such a valuable example of X, Y, or Z, and indeed I sympathize with that and in many cases would side with the museum. This makes it a lot harder to feel definitively one way or the other on this issue.
And, in the end, as the article concludes, in truth, contrary to what was represented earlier in the article, it would seem that many/most Russian officials are not in fact concerned about anything relating to the objects themselves, e.g. bitterness against Chabad for the virulence of the conflict, but, rather, are afraid of setting a precedent. They’re afraid that by letting anything go, it sets a dangerous precedent for other groups to start making claims of their own. I wish we could file this one away under the Russians being crazy, obnoxious, stubborn, or anti-Semitic, or refusing (or failing) to change from their Soviet ways of doing things, but, unfortunately, these arguments sound all too familiar. I can imagine American institutions making very similar arguments, and I can imagine siding with them in such circumstances. So… while I sympathize with the Chabadniks to a great extent, in the end I’m really not sure which side to believe, or to side with. Hopefully this plan to digitize the collection and make it publicly available actually manifests. It’s not as much as the Lubavitchers may want, but it’s certainly something.