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Posts Tagged ‘jewish history’

At the airport.

Just before we left Turkey for the summer, we traveled to Izmir (Smyrna), an ancient city on the west coast of Turkey, facing the Aegean Sea. There, we were fortunate to receive a proper tour from a local tour guide.

From what we saw, it seems the city for the most part extends across the northern and eastern/southern sides of a bay. While we were staying not far from the Konak area (home to city hall, a major bazaar, and some of the city’s museums) and the Alsancak neighborhood (perhaps the chief center of live music bars), both of which sit on the eastern end of the bay facing west out over the water, these are connected by ferry boat (vapur) to other major neighborhoods on the northern side of the bay. We began on that northern side, at a former synagogue known as Mezakat Arabim in a neighborhood known as Karşıyaka. Built in the late 19th c. and out of use since the 1930s or so, it fell completely into disrepair, but was recently turned into a music school by the municipality of Karşıyaka. Free music classes are provided there by the municipality. But some parts of the former synagogue, such as the stained glass and aron hakodesh (the “ark” or special cabinet where Torah scrolls were kept) have been maintained or restored. The ark is now used as a regular cabinet, but the original Hebrew letters have been repainted and maintained, and the stained glass is partially original and partially restored.


The former synagogue Mezakat Arabim.

We learned that Ataturk’s mother spent her last years in Izmir and is buried in Karşıyaka. His wife was also from Izmir. Also, the Greek invasion of Izmir in 1919 is said to have been the final straw on the camel’s back which really sparked Ataturk to go to the Karadeniz (Black Sea) provinces and start his nationalist movement. So Izmir claims a certain pride or responsibility in connection to the Republic.

Looking at a map, I learned that a number of islands just off the coast of Turkey, just a very short distance from Izmir, are governed/administered as part of Greece. These islands serve as a rather striking example of how arbitrary and ahistorical national borders can be. All of Greece was, of course, part of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years, and before that, the entire region was under the Eastern Roman (or “Byzantine”) Empire, which many called or considered “Greek.” It was only at the end of several wars and a massive population exchange that the borders ended up where they are today. Who’s to say whether Izmir (Smyrna), Edirne (Adrianople), Rhodes (today part of Greece but far closer geographically to Turkey), these islands near Izmir, or even Istanbul (Constantinople) itself should rightfully be considered “Greek” vs. “Turkish” territory? What do we even really mean by that when there was no country of “Greece” or “Turkey” for all those hundreds of years? A pretty interesting and potentially eye-opening example for world history courses.

As we rode the vapur to Karşıyaka, Tilda told us that the first settlements here came around 6500 BCE. Over at the other end of Turkey, near the Syrian border, is Göbekli Tepe, quite possibly the oldest known, excavated, religious site in the world, dating back as far as 11,000 BCE. As so much of our basic education on the ancient world centers on Greece, Rome, Egypt, the Levant (Lebanon/Syria/Israel) and Mesopotamia, it can be really easy to forget, or to not realize to begin with, just how far back the ancient history of Anatolia / Asia Minor (i.e. Turkey) can go.

The next later major settlement was around 3000 BCE. The third was founded by Alexander the Great, who conquered over from the Greek mainland, and through the islands. Later, Alexander’s generals decided to establish a major treasury at Pergamon (about an hour north). Some time later, while the general was away, the guards of the treasury decided to keep it for themselves and used it to start their own Kingdom of Pergamon. That kingdom lasted only about 150 years, but was apparently quite rich both economically and in arts, philosophy, etc. The last King of Pergamon gave his kingdom to Rome, rather than risk being conquered or destroyed or anything.

Rome then controlled the area until around the 4th century CE, when Rome fell and Byzantium (i.e. Constantinople, i.e. Istanbul) became the capital of a new Eastern Roman Empire, which ruled until the Ottoman conquests. Over the course of the 12-15th centuries, Turks, Byzantines, Venetians, Genoese, and others repeatedly gained and lost control over parts or the whole of the area around Izmir/Smyrna. The Ottomans then took Izmir definitively in 1424, nearly thirty years before famously taking Constantinople in 1453.

The Ottomans were not the first Turks to come to Turkey, though. There were also the Seljuk Turks who, if I’ve got this right, expanded out across Persia and over to the west, conquering much of Anatolia (i.e. Turkey) by the end of the 11th century. They were led at that time by Alp Arslan, who won an important battle against the Byzantines at Manzikert in 1071. Manzikert is one of those battles that I definitely knew the name of, knew it must be of some real major significance in European history, but never knew/remembered what the significance was. Like the Battle of Lepanto.

But now, excavations in Beşiktaş (a neighborhood of Istanbul) have apparently recently shown evidence that Central Asian (Turkic) peoples may have arrived in Anatolia much earlier than the 11th c (Seljuks). So, that’s something. Sadly, I was only told about this verbally, and don’t have an article to link to or to read to learn more about it myself.

The Izmir Clock Tower (Saat Kulesi).

Jumping to the modern period, at this point in our tour we had come to the Izmir Clock Tower, at the center of a major plaza in the Konak neighborhood, which includes Izmir’s chief bazaar and several of its major museums. The clock tower was apparently built in 1901 in celebration of 25th year of the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, with the central clock mechanism being a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.

Konak means “mansion.” At one side of the plaza, the former residence/office of the Ottoman governor of the area is now the official government office for the governor of Izmir Province.


The Karataş synagogue.

We would come back to Konak later, but first went to a neighboring area called Karataş. Though I would assume it has a far far older history, in terms of modern urban development this area first began being settled and built up in the 1800s. It quickly became the second (modern) Jewish neighborhood of Izmir, and by the 1880s-1890s, a significant portion of the Jewish community of the city had moved to Karataş, and received permission from the Sultan to build a new synagogue. That synagogue, built over a roughly ten-year period from 1907 until about 1917, is today the largest synagogue in Izmir, with seats for about 400 people. It is a gorgeous space on the inside, built according to a basilica plan, with the Aron Hakodesh (holy ark where the Torah scrolls are kept) and bimah (stage) at the front. Most of the other synagogues in the city, and indeed most I’ve seen outside of the US were built in a central plan, with the bimah in the center, though many were later rearranged to put the bimah at the front.

Today, the building is pretty much only used on Shabbat, holidays, and for events such as wedding or bar mitzvah. Due to its size, beauty, and history, it is one of the chief locations in the city that people choose to host their Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs today, but outside of those occasions, even on the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), we are told that sadly they may get only a few tens of people.

Because of basic geographical considerations the building is not oriented to the east (towards Jerusalem). The Aron Hakodesh is to the South, and even though they read Torah there (facing south, with the readers facing north), various other parts of the service are performed facing east. Even though they haven’t built a second bimah or anything at all to that direction.

Above: A view out over Izmir from the top of the Asansör.

Walking a short distance from the synagogue, we came to an Izmir landmark known as the Asansör, or “elevator.” Nissim Levi and another Jewish businessman built the Asansör in 1919. I am not sure when the first elevators were invented, or what a steam-powered elevator might have looked like in 1919 Izmir, but it’s kind of hard to imagine. I mean, as a historian 1919 feels pretty modern; but, at the same time, it was literally one hundred years ago. I don’t think I realized that elevator technology in any form went back quite that far. Now run by the municipality, and redone with totally modern elevator technology, use of the elevator, which provides quick and easy access between the areas of town high up on the cliffs and those down below, is now free. Originally, Nissim Levi had donated his house to become a hospital, charged fees to use the elevator, and used that revenue to help run the hospital.

Sephardic Jews – descendants of those who were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s and settled in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere – seem to have long been a prominent presence in Izmir. And even long long before that. There was already a significant community of Jews in the area, we were told, by at least the 1st century CE. Smyrna was, after all, a significant site in earliest Christianity, who were of course Jews. Others also came with Alexander the Great, or that is with his empire. This was the Romaniote community – Jews who trace their lineage and traditions back to ancient Greece. We can be very self-oriented and narrow in our perspectives as Ashkenazi Jews, and as the broader gentile communities in New York and elsewhere, thinking that Ashenazim (Eastern European Jews, like myself) are the default Jews, the primary type or category of Jews, the only Jews, or (particularly problematically) the only true Jews following the only true correct or proper version of halakha (Jewish practices). I had always had some sense about Sephardic Jews, coming from a tradition stretching back through centuries in Ottoman lands, Italy, or elsewhere, back to medieval Spain, and about Mizrahi Jews, whose ancestors had lived in Arab or Persian lands for centuries and centuries, in some cases of course stretching back to long before there was ever even such a thing as Islam or Christianity, and long before the Arab conquests of Palestine and so many other lands outside of the Arabian peninsula. I had also heard about Ethiopian Jews, Indian (Mumbai) Jews, even Jews from Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Peru. But somehow it had never occurred to me, and I certainly had never been taught, about the Jews who lived in Greece and elsewhere before even the Sephardim came. Of course they existed; of course they would have had a separate identity and traditions. And now, as bad as it is that the Sephardim and other groups are getting Ashkenazified in the US and around the world, and that the Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and indeed everyone is getting Israelified over in Israel – some new, specifically Israeli, form of Jewish culture developing and taking over as the “real” or “true” or most correct form of being Jewish – as bad as all of that is (and many Muslim communities in the Balkans and elsewhere are simultaneously being Arabized), how much worse for the Romaniotes! Side note, we also visited at some point in the last year or two a Greek synagogue in New York’s Lower East Side, the only Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. And yet, rather than being able to strongly maintain and practice and pass on Romaniote traditions and identity, they have to struggle with/against the many Sephardic members of the congregation, whose traditions inevitably influence and alter their own.

The Algaze Synagogue.

A section from a Turkish siddur (prayer book). Of course, Jewish prayer books come in all languages, but it’s always interesting nevertheless to see them.

In Izmir, many Sephardim came in the 1490s-1500s, greatly boosting the size & strength of the Jewish community in the city but of course dramatically impacting the community’s cultural character as well. Ets Hayim (“Tree of Life”) is considered the earliest synagogue in the city that still exists. It is believed to have been built in the early 15th century, even before Sephardic arrival.

We later returned to the winding streets of the bazaar area to visit another set of historic synagogues. The main streets of the bazaar form a semi-circle through the area, with everything else branching off from that. One of those branches is Havra Sokak – literally “synagogue street” or “synagogue alley.” It is full of grocers, fishmongers, all sorts of shops and stalls, and only a few synagogues. But four synagogues sit back to back with one another, perhaps the only place in the entire world where this happens.

Today, all of these synagogues are in varying states of closure. Some take turns, being closed most of the time and being opened up for weekday services for a month or two, and then closed again while a different one is opened for use for a month or two. As someone who grew up in a synagogue that at that time had a very lively and actively community – minyan morning and evening every day, Hebrew school for the kids on weekday afternoons and Sundays, a good 50-100 people every Saturday morning – and in a region where almost every town had at least one synagogue that was at least that well-attended and many towns had multiple, I cannot help but feel this is a sad state of affairs. That so many synagogues should be in such disrepair and disuse. But, then there is the flip-side. These synagogues are still here; they haven’t been demolished or turned over to other uses. They haven’t been abandoned by the community, and quite to the contrary, with the help of the city, they are actively working to maintain, operate, and restore them, and to convert some of them into a sort of museum area, opening them up to Jewish and Muslim Izmir locals, tourists, whomever, to come and learn something about Judaism and about Izmir. A professor and his students from Helsinki (I didn’t catch the name) come ever year to work on restoration of old textiles, such as parochet (ark curtains). Şalom synagogue has been able to establish a climate controlled storage room for these precious textiles. And while I have no doubt that every Jewish community – every community of any kind – has its rifts and feuds, it seems like the core people at least work together to operate and maintain and use all of the synagogues; unlike how I imagine it would be in my home community, to be honest, where each synagogue is struggling on its own and no one really thinks of themselves as having any connection or belonging or association with any of the others.

Bikur Cholim synagogue.

The first small synagogue we visited is called Bikur Cholim (“Visiting Patients”). The origin of the name is unclear, but the congregation may have been involved in organizing visits to hospitals or something like that. The building was donated by a Chavez family in the late 17th or early 18th century. It burned down several times and was rebuilt, and much of what survives today is from the 19th century.

The Algaze Synagogue dates to 1724. It has a central bimah. The basement used to house a council of elders, providing them housing in exchange for them regularly praying for the well-being of the community, providing minyan, etc. This basement also houses a genizah, a place where papers and documents that cannot be thrown away or otherwise destroyed – anything with the name of God written on it, such as torn pages from old prayer books, for example – are stored until they can be ritually buried.

We were told of a major historical episode in the history of Turkish Jewry, in which a rabbi named Sabbatai Zevi, in the 17th century, claimed to be (or was claimed by his followers to be) the Jewish Messiah. This created all sorts of trouble, especially from the perspective of the Islamic government (the Ottoman Sultan was also the Caliph of all Sunni Islam), and in 1666 Sabbatai Zevi was forced to convert to Islam or be executed. He and several hundred of his followers converted, or at least claimed to, but he was later found to be singing Jewish psalms with a group of Jews, and was executed. (according to Wikipedia). I had never heard of this story before getting involved with Sephardic communities, but then I had scarcely ever learned anything about Sephardim before. This seems to have been a pretty major incident, though, because I remember it being described not only in the Jewish Museum of Istanbul, but also in the Jewish Museum in Athens (and/or the one in Salonika, I forget). In any case, after this incident, rabbis forced the community to become much more conservative. The community turned inwards in the late 18th to mid 19th centuries, with much focus on religious study, and little on secular education. Secular education only advanced again, bringing greater openness and economic well-being with the Alliance Schools being founded in the mid-to-late 19th century. Or, perhaps that’s just one way to see it. I don’t know if this is a controversial subject among Sephardic Jews or among scholars, but – kneejerk reaction – as someone who has studied non-Western histories, theories of colonialism & imperialism, studies relating to indigenous heritage, and so forth, a system of schools established by Western European Jews to teach Ottoman Jews French language and provide them a “modern” “Western” education seems a bit more complicated and potentially problematic than simply “they brought us secular education and openness and economic well-being.”

Left: The entrance courtyard to Şalom Synagogue, behind a relatively non-descript metal gate from the street.

In any case, we were told of another nearby synagogue, La Sinyora, which is no longer in use for religious events but is still used for community events. Another area called Foresteros (sp?) was at one time turned to use for kosher butchering, kapparot, etc.

A synagogue known as the Portuguese Synagogue (no 8), fell out of use in the mid-20th c. It was loaned to the Aegean Young People’s Association for 25 years to use for social & cultural activities, with the condition that they restore it and also make it available to the Jewish community. Today it is in disrepair but is still controlled by the community and there are plans to clean it up and make it into part of the museum.

Our guide pointed out a small area with ruined and graffitied walls, which used to contain within them the house and office of the chief rabbi. The building still belongs to the community but the land does not so it’s an ongoing problem.

Right: Beit Hillel is a small space, so it’s hard to get a good shot of it.

Another building in the immediate Havra Sokak area, known as Beit Hillel, wasn’t really a “synagogue” but a small house where people gathered to prayer. At one time, an earthquake and the ensuing fire destroyed much of the city, including 10,000 shops or homes belonging to Jews. The synagogues thankfully were mostly spared. But even so, with the community having such difficulties, some wealthy families gave over a room or a secondary house to the use of the community for prayer etc. Beit Hillel was one such place. It was given by the Palaci family. Hayim Palaci (b. 1788) was a great scholar, who wrote some 70+ books on religion, including many respuestas – answers to questions people might have as to correct practice, etc. Some of these books are still in very active use. He and his son Abraham Palaci (pictured) are buried in an old cemetery called Gülçesme, no longer actively in use today. A small sect of Hasidic followers follow his teachings in particular, and some 30-50 people come from Israel every year on the anniversary of Palaci’s death, and do whatever it is they do. Palaci was named a Minister of Justice (kadi) , one of the highest members of the Sultan’s Court in Izmir Province, able to hand down decisions on judicial conflicts or petitions pertaining not only to Jews but to Muslims or anyone else as well.

Beit Hillel is today a “memory house.” Not quite a museum, but housing some displays and objects. Since all the synagogues are normally closed except when actively being used, this house, open regularly, provides a little bit of an opportunity for any Muslim or anyone else who’s interested to learn just a little something, some sense of what goes on in a synagogue. And to learn something about the Palaci family and that particular story.

Meanwhile, the Ashkenazi community in Izmir grew over the 19th century, and built its own separate shuls, schools, butcher shop, etc. But then after 1919, many left. The Ashkenazi synagogue was forgotten, and rediscovered only more recently. Today, the entrance is blocked off, but is labeled.

One of the many han (caravanserai plazas) in Kemeraltı.

Returning to the bazaar, we were introduced to several “han” – like caravanserai, but small ones located within a city. Historically, these were enclosed plazas where merchants could leave their horses, camels, etc., and then on the second story, all around the plaza, were inns where the merchants could stay. Today, we walk down the bazaar streets and from time to time find an opening, an entrance into one such plaza, today used as open-air restaurants or bars, sometimes with live music. I would not be surprised if the second and third story rooms are still today used as hotels or the like.

Finally, we went to the ruins of the ancient agora (main marketplace) of ancient Greek Smyrna. Today, large sections of it are excavated, and are maintained as a public park. Professors and their students continue to actively work on the site, gradually excavating more and more. There were plans at one time to build something in the site, some sort of cultural displays or cultural center, but for the time being that seems to be on hold.

The agora was destroyed in an earthquake sometime in the 2nd century CE. Marcus Aurelius had it rebuilt in honor/memory of his wife, who loved Smyrna and who had recently died, and her picture can be seen on the archway.

In western Anatolia, esp. southwestern Anatolia, we were told, the ancient Greek influence or identity was so strong that Latin never really replaced Greek language entirely. Even well into the Roman period, inscriptions continued to be in Greek.

As someone who never really studied Greek/Roman history, I learned a number of interesting little things about their architecture. Terracotta water pipes were made with holes covered over with lids. They could then unseal a lid to clear blockages in the pipes, without having to replace entire lengths of pipes. Ancient Smyrna featured main shopping avenues of tiny showcase shop spaces. And sections of columns and sculptures were often held together with metal joins, which were poured in through small channels carved in the side. I had always wondered about that – you can’t make such statues, with outstretched arms and so forth, without some kind of supports, right?

So, let’s see. How to sum up? Izmir was an interesting time. The only Turkish city outside of Istanbul I’ve yet visited; definitely had a different vibe, but not too different. Really cool to get to see more music shops, indeed a whole (small) Museum of Musical Instruments which contains a working luthier workshop; we actually ended up meeting up with some of the instrument-makers based there and got to visit their master’s workshop as well. I love how these workshops are so often hidden on the second story of nondescript buildings – just like in Kyoto and in so many other places it’s just such a wonderful feeling to think about how much more is going on all around you, behind the scenes, that you wouldn’t know about. We did miss out on going to any meyhane (live bars). But on the other hand, we got to have some boyoz, a distinctively Sephardic food which has become widespread and mainstream (only) in Izmir.

I still kind of can’t believe that I’ve been to Turkey, period. But now that I’m with someone who’s so involved with Turkish music and culture, I’m definitely looking forward to going back to Turkey with her, and maybe visiting some other parts, such as Edirne, and maybe even Cappadoccia, the Black Sea region, or even Kurdistan. We’ll see.

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After our fifteen minute tour of Independence Hall and a quick peek at the Liberty Bell, we made our way to the National Museum of Jewish History. Beautiful building, very new shiny clean exhibits. The first three floors house a permanent exhibition on the history of Jews in America, and on the top floor, until Sept 2, they’re showing a special exhibit on the life of Leonard Bernstein. Now, I really must admit, I had only the vaguest idea who Bernstein was. I knew he’s a famous musician, and I’ve been to his grave actually, but that’s about it. Even so, I learned, and I found the exhibit just fascinating and wonderful. For someone so deeply involved in Jewish spirituality, music, liturgy, and philosophy, who composed so many pieces directly based upon or inspired by liturgy, to become so popular and successful in such a mainstream way is really incredible. I know some composers or musicians today who, I don’t know their career aspirations or anything, but who are definitely deeply involved in Jewish music. But if Bernstein can be accepted and loved and therefore successful in a mainstream and widespread way, and not only within the niche world of Jewish music, maybe they can too.

The exhibit was, of course, not terribly musicological. We didn’t learn much at all about precisely how or why his music was groundbreaking. How he used the devil’s interval in “Maria” in West Side Story, or how his half-speed rendition of the fourth movement of Mahler’s 5th Symphony, featuring the harp, was so revered. Or that Mahler was Jewish, for that matter. At least, I don’t think I remember seeing any of that in the exhibit; just learned it from my gf.

One thing I really enjoyed about the exhibit was how well they included multimedia interactives. There were several listening stations and also small screening rooms, where you could listen to his music, watch segments from a performance of his “MASS,” or watch segments from all over popular culture reenacting or referencing bits from West Side Story. There were also several video screens with clips from documentaries about Bernstein, including one I found particularly interesting, on his trip to Israel in 1967.

There was also a station where a whole bunch of wooden blocks were scattered on a table; by choosing a block and putting it in a designated spot, you could activate a screen with video and audio relating to one of Bernstein’s works. By turning the block to different sides, you could get the screen to focus on the lyrics or the composition or the recording or other different aspects. They could have just done this with a series of buttons, or any number of other arrangements, but doing it with blocks was very neat, I thought. The whole thing, the whole exhibit, was just really interesting. Learning about this man’s relationship with his Judaism, but then also with African-American music and civil rights, with allegations of association with Communists – even suspicions that Bernstein was explicitly a Soviet spy. He was never actually brought up on any charges of any kind, nor subpoenaed, so far as I know, in connection with any of that, but a copy of his 800-page FBI file was on display in the exhibit. Pretty incredible.

Bernstein with the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra, in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Germany, 1948. People who had suffered and survived the concentration camps only to be left in refugee camps for years… and yet still had enough strength, and talent, and memory of their training & skills, to perform as an orchestra. Just reading about this was terribly moving.

And, he went to Germany in 1948 and conducted an orchestra composed of DPs (displaced persons, i.e. refugees), and went to Israel just after Independence Day, going back again in 1967, when he then conducted the Israel Philharmonic, previously the Palestine Philharmonic, composed originally of some of the absolutely best musicians in Europe, members of the Vienna and Munich and Prague Philharmonics, who were given visas and documents and help to leave Europe in the late 1930s or very early 1940s if I remember correctly, escaping from the Nazis before it was too late.

Two of the three floors of permanent exhibits.

And then we turn to the permanent exhibits, which were pretty great. More than just being a “Jewish Museum,” this is a Jewish history museum, and actually really endeavors to tell the history chronologically. We learned of the first Jews in the New World – all Sephardic Jews living in South America. Some of them then relocated to North America fleeing Catholic persecution, and became the first Jews in the British colonies. The first synagogue in New York, as I already had known, was a Sephardic synagogue. After these early stages, the vast majority of the exhibits after that made little mention of the Sephardim, however, which is a real shame because I was curious and would have loved to learn more about their history.

Today, I am told, there are more Jews in New York City (or maybe it’s the broader greater NY metro area?) than in any other single city in the world. But, still, that doesn’t mean that NY Jewish history is all there is to Jewish history in the US! I found it really interesting to learn about the first Jewish communities in Charleston, SC; Newport RI; New Orleans; Detroit; all these different places. I was sad to not see any focus on LA at all, only since I’ve been spending more time there lately and would be interested to learn more about that history as well.

But, while I suppose one could write a whole blog post solely on the issue of how this compares to other “ethnic” history museums, my head’s not really in that game right now. It would certainly be interesting. The key thing which struck me and got me thinking about that was the one section on the role of Jews in the Civil War. I suppose you might not be surprised to learn that there were Jews on every side of that political / ideological conflict, as there were also in the Revolutionary War. I don’t know what to say about people of any other ethnic or national background, but Jewish residents of the 13 British colonies, just like Protestant and Catholic residents, included both some loyal to the revolution and some loyal to the Crown. And I’m not at all surprised. Though we might in retrospect consider one side “patriots” and the other side “traitors” or whatever, at the time, in the moment, how the hell was anyone to know? Not just in terms of thinking strategically in terms of siding with whichever side you think is going to win, but just simply the fact that there was no simple right answer. Do you remain loyal to your country, which yes has imposed some unfair laws and whatever, but generally speaking is the only government you’ve ever known, and one which has provided some notable degree of security and stability and all of that, or do you join up with this rebellion that’s led by who exactly? fighting for what exactly? to separate from one of the great powers of Western Civilization in order to instead build a new nation (or thirteen separate ones?) in this rugged frontier? …. I think about Jews living in Europe in the 1930s, and especially those of some wealth and privilege, those who perhaps had the most freedom to actually get out (e.g. disposable income to pay for train tickets, political or civic connections to get the papers, connections elsewhere in the world to have somewhere to arrive to), but who also in a certain sense had the most to lose. I think about people invited to join the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, who had such comfortable, upscale, well-to-do lives in Vienna or Berlin or wherever, who really didn’t know what the right decision was. How could they know in 1936 just how bad it would get, and that it really was going to get like that? … And in light of that, in light of the genuine reality of people not knowing what to do amidst what turned out to be one of the most extreme situations in recent history, it’s really quite reasonable to realize that of course there would be Jews on both sides of the Civil War. Many Jews just like Protestants and Catholics were slaveowners, and many Jews were abolitionists. Many Jews were farmers and many were industrialists. Many were small-town people and many were big city people. Many braved the frontier and settled the West (and probably were pretty horrible to Native Americans and others in the process). Many did not. Is this because we were “white”? Maybe. I don’t know. But we were still an ethnic/national and religious minority. So while there are pretty stark reasons that the vast majority of Blacks, Chinese(-Americans), Native Americans, and members of certain other groups went one way politically, and very few another way, at various times in history, on various contentious issues, there are surely numerous other groups which were more divided, more diverse, in their positions and actions at such times. I’d be curious to see other ethnic history museums address this issue. I don’t recall seeing JANM or NMAI address such matters… And I can certainly understand why. But, even so, our country has been more diverse than most people realize for a much longer time than most people realize, and I’d be genuinely curious to learn more about more individuals of different backgrounds involved in the Revolution or the Civil War on both sides, people of different ethnic/cultural backgrounds involved in (or in trying to stop) actions against the Native Americans, hell for that matter, people of all different backgrounds involved in overseas wars as well. After all, history is rarely so simple, as to assume that all our ancestors, in whichever ethnic or religious community, were on the “right” side of history so to speak.

Of course, such matters are by no means the central theme of the National Museum of Jewish History either. After the Civil War, the exhibits go on to talk about the origins of the Reform Movement, early 20th century immigration restriction policies, and numerous other topics and themes, before eventually getting to the Holocaust. This section was very well-done, with concurrent videos of Hitler’s and Roosevelt’s speeches run next to each other, giving a sense of the history going on at the same time, as it indeed was.

One thing I found particularly interesting and somewhat unexpected in this section was examples of just how anti-semitic American society was at that time. We like to believe in a story of how the US was this bastion of freedom, this great hero that came and eventually rescued the Jews, and the world, from Hitler and Nazism. And of course there’s truth to that. I one thousand percent am happy to live in a world where the Nazis lost that war. But even so, to have the displays be not about conditions in Nazi Europe and about US heroism, but rather about anti-semitism here at home, was kind of eye-opening, actually. And very sad. And a lot of it echoes very strongly with what continues to go on today with other groups in the case of fears of immigrant groups overwhelming the American population and taking over the country. But a lot of it echoes with anti-semitism that continues to go on today as well. A booklet published in 1939 entitled “Am I an Anti-Semite?”, which on first glance you might think would be a good thing, a book educating people about Jews and about anti-semitism. But, no. This is a book justifying the author’s anti-Jewish sentiment through discussion of the horrors of (Jewish-associated) Communism. I’m not sure whether the author’s answer to “Am I an Anti-Semite?” is “no,” or if it’s “yes, and for good reason,” but either way, the same might as well be published today, just denying or justifying the author’s anti-semitism by talking about the horrors of Zionism instead of Communism. Or just flat-out continuing to repeat the same-old “Jewish conspiracy” lies. These days, in the era of Trump, we’re seeing some of those old canards come roaring right back, to a truly frightening extent sometimes. Some things never change.

There was so much to see, we ran out of time twice, coming back to see the museum a second day, and then even on the second day not getting to see all of it. I ended up rushing through much of it, getting very few photos of the 19th century section at all. Afterwards, we made it to the UPenn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which was fantastic, but only for a brief time there too before turning around to head home entirely. Much still left to see in Philadelphia, another time.

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The New York-based Center for Jewish History has joined Flickr Commons, sharing hundreds of photos not only of Jewish life in New York, but also of photos related to the Shoah (the Holocaust) in Europe, and possibly of other places and times as well.

This has nothing to do with Asian art, of course, but I wish to share this anyway, and feel inclined to write a proper blog post about it rather than just posting it as a link to Facebook or Google Buzz or whatever.

Left: A Passover seder held in Manila, the Philippines, 1925.

Though only an MA student, not a full professional scholar, I’ve already come to associate myself quite strongly as an Asianist, a Japanist. I don’t research Jewish topics; my Jewish identity is pretty separated, I feel, from a lot of what I do and think about on a daily basis.

Right: Glossary/Appendix from a 1764 book, giving Hebrew terms used by horse traders.

But when it does come to the fore, I do feel pretty strongly about it. After all, it’s my only link to history and heritage. I’m not Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Irish, English, French, German, Italian, or French. I don’t have a national or traditional costume, or traditional songs or anything beyond what I have as an American, and as a Jew. And so, when I go to events focusing on sharing cultures, e.g. with tables set up representing different countries, or with performances of traditional music and dance from different cultures, it really makes me think, what songs or dances, what costumes, would I associate with? What table would I want to run? Not the American one, I don’t think. Because here in the US, few of us are just American – we’re all Chinese-American or Greek-American or Native American, and we all have an other culture that we feel strongly connected to.

My grandparents came to the US after being liberated from Buchenwald at the end of the war. They spent some time in Germany, in Displaced Persons camps, in between, which is where two of my uncles were born. My father, the third son of five, was the first in the family to be born in the US.

Right: A synagogue in Wiesbaden, Germany, set aflame during Kristallnacht.

Visiting the Center for Jewish History in person, with my father, a year or so ago, we saw a small exhibition about the DP camps, an aspect barely ever discussed, we felt, about the Holocaust. I never knew my grandparents well – they both died when I was young – and I don’t know much about their lives, before, during, after the Shoah. And my father didn’t know either. His parents spent several years in these camps, and yet we never really gave it any thought before. Where did people go right after they were liberated? What did people do about observances in these camps? It was a most touching, and interesting, story to learn about how US Army Jewish chaplains organized Passover seders in the camps, and how many people simply stayed in the liberated concentration camps, taken over by Allied forces and converted to DP camps, for lack of anywhere else to go…

I don’t really know much at all about Jewish history in New York. And yet I feel close to it, and want to learn more. While it was good news a week or two ago to see the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest join Flickr a week or so ago, I really have no connection to the Midwest. So I am very excited to see this wonderful collection of photos relating to the history of Jews in New York and around the world made more widely available for all, and am eager to sift through it and maybe come upon some gems.

National rabbinic leaders arrested for demonstrating in front of the Soviet embassy, Washington DC 1986.

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